They should begin by assessing where they are in the life cycles of three types of technologies: emerging, mainstream and legacy systems, says Scott Dillon, executive vice president, CTO and head of technology infrastructure services at Wells Fargo.
Dillon's organization offers employees "learning maps" that they can use to chart career paths and identify areas for further development. While the learning maps emphasize emerging technologies, "mainstream is still our bread and butter and the place where we devote most of our training efforts," Dillon says.
Of course, in an industry that never stops innovating, mainstream is always on its way to legacy. "The first question I would ask is, 'Does my current expertise have a long sunset ahead of it?' " says Penman, the CIO-turned-consultant. "Because if you're a Unix sysadmin and they're going to need two instead of 10, you need to get to a place where you're part of the growth rather than part of the containment."
Penman says the next questions should be, "Do I have a strong career track inside this company? Does it treat its people well? Is there room for growth?"
The point, Penman and others say, is that tech people must choose -- and soon -- whether to attach themselves to a company and an industry or to a skill set.
Those who are happiest doing a deep dive into a specific technology should look at those businesses with the most demand for such capabilities: consultancies, outsourcers and service providers. While the idea of moving to that end of the IT market may cause some IT purists to feel queasy, there's no shame in pursuing a career in what Montalbano calls "the other side of the cloud."
Penman agrees. "A lot of top talent is moving to service providers," he says. "If you want to be deep in virtualization, work for a supreme cloud provider like Amazon or Rackspace."
IT pros who want to be part of an organization or industry must improve their business acumen so they're able to explain and demonstrate how they contribute to the bottom line. "Hiring managers are looking for good thinking skills, good analytical skills, and good networking and relationship skills," says executive search expert Fairlie.
That's why Jason Rolader, an administrator at the Georgia Insurance Guaranty Association, decided to study computer information systems rather than pure computer science when he entered Georgia State University in 2000. "I almost went into computer science, but CIS seemed to speak more to me," he says. "It's more focused on applying tech to business in new and different ways."
Even so, he recalls "the handwriting was already on the wall" when he graduated in 2005 -- tech companies were outsourcing and offshoring. "I didn't want to get caught up in that. I said, 'What can I do to differentiate myself?' " says Rolader, who's now 30.