The path to a satisfying IT career can be paved with missteps. Here's how one IT pro corrected common mistakes and found success starting his own company.
Slideshow: My Mistake: 10 CIOs Share Do-Over Worthy Moments
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Mike Townsend's career as an IT professional had its share of highlights, from his developing algorithms that synchronize a power plant's electronic valves to testing sophisticated radar systems. Most recently, Townsend launched Zing Checkout, a Los Angeles-based provider of online point-of-sale systems. Despite these accomplishments, Townsend says the path to a satisfying career in IT is paved with missteps, not milestones. Here's his take on the opportunities in failure.
Mistake #1: Undervaluing your skills. Underestimating the market value of one's IT skills "is a very common mistake made by a lot of engineers and developers," said Townsend. "A large part of that is because many of us don't have access to information on how much skills are worth and what are the hourly rates for our work."
More than simply a blow to one's self-esteem, Townsend warns that downplaying IT skills can have a negative impact on an IT professional's pocketbook. "When designing and developing websites and applications, I would do work for free in the beginning to show companies what I was capable of. As a young engineer, it was hard to get a true perspective on the market and realize your true value." However, by "learning the ability to say no and start charging clients," Townsend said he learned a valuable lesson: how to create his own value.
Mistake #2: Lousy networking. Blame it on Myers-Briggs' personality inventory: "The most common traits of IT professionals like engineers are shyness and being introverted. It's difficult for them to network," said Townsend, despite the fact that engineers typically are very good at what they do. "Understanding that and staying in touch with people who can help you down the road is something I wish I had done more of," says Townsend.
Today, he makes a point of "maintaining a good relationship with a few select people" and tooting his own horn--practices that have helped him launch a business of his own.
Mistake #3: Putting too much stock in school.
Although proud to have attended the University of Connecticut and the University of California in Los Angeles, Townsend warns, "There's really an over-emphasis on some of the collegiate accreditation tools. Getting a college degree is not as valuable as it once was because these days people are hiring you for your skills--not for your degree. In fact, your resume is essentially the work that you've done, not the schooling you've been through." All of this has pushed Townsend to create his own products and branding.
Mistake #4: Wearing blinders. Stuck working 70-hour weeks, Townsend says it's easy for IT professionals to become blind to the tech industry's wide array of opportunities. "It's hard to see what's out there in the world," he warns. "When you're at a large company, you don't necessarily see the opportunities that exist at smaller companies. Plus, IT professionals are very focused on their own tasks rather than trends."
Fortunately, Townsend said he's turned that around. "I was very focused on software and mechanical engineering and became very good at that but then I started seeing friends raising money and creating new products--it was eye opening to see what was possible," he said. "It was truly like turning on a light bulb of inspiration and seeing what I really wanted to do with my career."
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