IT Career Development: Scheduled Career Maintenance
Taking a methodical approach to career development, much like system maintenance, may be a better strategy for IT professionals.
As the summer winds down, it’s a good time to reflect on your career; where you are, what you’ve accomplished and where you want to go next. It may be that “back to school” feeling that comes along with the impending change of seasons—the urge to buckle down with the end of August and beginning of September.
As IT professionals, we aren’t always particularly skilled when it comes to focusing on our own careers. We get caught up in the technology—which is all fun and geeky and an essential element of our professional lives. Sometimes, though, we miss the bigger picture. The equally essential focus on soft skills passes us by. They may seem pointless or boring, or perhaps we just find it uncomfortable to focus on those factors—and in turn ourselves.
Focusing on your career is important. It requires active participation. So to resolve this problem, why not try a new way of thinking about your career: scheduled maintenance. This is certainly a concept you understand. It’s important to make a plan and take time out of normal operations to undergo routine maintenance. Sometimes the maintenance window is small; perhaps 15 to 30 minutes to install the latest updates. Sometimes the window is larger; maybe eight to 12 hours of downtime to perform a major upgrade.
Try this approach for your career as well. There are a variety of ways to apply the scheduled maintenance theory to your career—from small, ongoing tasks that pay off over time, to more significant endeavors likely to deliver bigger payoffs. The result should be much like traditional scheduled system maintenance—your career will run smoothly and frequently add new functionality.
Be a Part of the Business
TechNet Magazine has covered the IT/business divide extensively. It’s one of the larger challenges that IT professionals face consistently. It can also stand in the way of positive career growth.
The IT department and the business units frequently exist as distinctly separate entities. Business unit leaders often see IT as an expense—a necessary cost of doing business. The IT department responds defensively, feeling compelled to justify every step it takes.
This dynamic creates tension and friction, all the while overshadowing a golden opportunity for both sides to come to the realization that IT can be a driving force for the business. When technology is applied to real business problems using a solutions-oriented approach, it can add value directly to any organization’s bottom line.
So what can you do about it, and what does it have to do with your career? You can be—and must be—the instrument of change. By taking proactive steps to close this divide, you can improve the impact of IT within your organization, while also demonstrating thought leadership and a desire to contribute to the overall success of the company, not just its technology infrastructure.
Becoming more involved in business planning is the best place to start. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are there planning meetings or discussions within my department I could attend, even as an observer?
- Which other groups or departments would be open to my participation, even as an observer, in their planning meetings or discussions?
- With whom can I develop mentoring relationships in other parts of the organization to help me understand drivers and motivations in other parts of the business?
- Are there unaddressed opportunities in the organization for technology to provide a meaningful impact on business processes to increase revenue, efficiency or productivity? Who would be most receptive to hearing about those ideas?
Steep yourself in understanding the motivations of your colleagues. Work to understand the driving forces and best interests of the company, and how you can support those needs through technology solutions. Make this a regular part of your operations plan and regularly scheduled maintenance.
Communication Is Critical
Effectively communicating your ideas is in lockstep with the previous step of becoming more involved in and aware of business planning and motivations. Communication covers many avenues, from written communication skills (everything from full-blown reports down to effective e-mails) to public speaking and presentation skills. This is an area well worth some investment, even if only as annual scheduled maintenance.
There’s coursework and training to help you improve both your effectiveness and comfort level when presenting to a crowd. Some of the most well-known sources for this type of training include organizations like the American Management Association or Toastmasters. There are also training companies specializing in “soft skills” like Dale Carnegie.
Generally, these courses are best taken in person. Look for opportunities within your company, or with local training companies for courses in effective public speaking or presentation skills.
A picture can indeed be worth a thousand words. If you’re artistically inclined, this can be a great asset for communicating and conveying your ideas. Even if the visual arts aren’t your strong suit, there’s still a great deal you can learn about conveying information—particularly quantitative information—using visual elements.
Seek out Presenting Data and Information by Professor Edward Tufte of Yale University. Professor Tufte is a renowned expert on presenting quantitative and analytical information. He covers how to best convey complex information like business, scientific, or financial research in concise and accessible ways. He’s well known for taking PowerPoint to task, as well as those who overuse or misuse PowerPoint.
Tufte’s books include a myriad of examples of how to create high-impact visual representations of analytic thought. His classes are still taught in cities across the United States. This is well worth exploring as you schedule maintenance for your career.
Keep Pace with Change
Technology continues to change at an ever-increasing pace. That’s no big surprise, but it is the greatest challenge to career development. How you keep up with change—or, more accurately, how you keep up with change and still get your job done—is a major aspect of your career.
There’s no easy answer. More than any other aspect of career development, this tends to be individually tailored. We all learn differently. We all have different priorities. We all have our own commitments to juggle.
Reading and doing are two of the best ways to keep pace with technology. Besides tailored resources like TechNet, there’s an increasing amount of tech learning available from blogs. There’s a diversity of opinion and subject matter, as well as a fine level of granularity—everything from specific and detailed how-tos and longer discussions on architecture and theory. RSS aggregation tools are indispensible for keeping up with your favorite blogs. Tools like FeedDemon, SharpReader, or other Web-based tools can help you organize your feeds and quickly consume all of the content generated by the IT community at large.
When it comes to doing, there’s TechNet Virtual Labs. These provide a free and convenient way to get some hands-on experience with a product before purchase, or when you can’t install it in your own test environment. Virtual Labs are broken up into 90-minute guided, self-paced lessons that let you immerse yourself in a new product or technology.
Certifications are also important, albeit controversial. Certifications can serve as a framework and model for keeping up with new technology. As a new generation of a major product like Windows is released, going through the certification process can be a great way to ensure that you’re familiar with all of the major changes and advances, even if you’re not yet using it in your own environment.
Career development is a challenging and highly personal pursuit. An investment in your career is an investment in yourself. By breaking career-development tasks into more easily attainable short and long-term goals—like scheduled maintenance—it’s far more likely that you’ll reach that next level.
Joshua Hoffman is the former editor in chief of TechNet Magazine*. He’s now an independent author and consultant, advising clients on technology and audience-oriented marketing. Hoffman also serves as editor in chief of ResearchAccess.com, a site devoted to growing and enriching the market research community. He lives in New York City.*