The new year is always a good time to take stock of your life, and your career is one area that you may want to evaluate. Maybe you are just getting started in your IT career and looking for the best approach to take to gain experience quickly and advance. Or maybe you already have spent a few years or even a few decades in IT, but you feel a little stuck in your current role or position, even as the tech space is expanding and your peers seem to be moving ahead.
Whatever the case, learning from the experience of other IT professionals can save you time and money as you work to get to the next phase of your career as an IT professional.
InformationWeek spoke to several IT professionals and leaders recently and asked them for their top piece of advice for other IT pros just getting started or in a mid-career state of limbo. Here's a collection of some of the best advice we heard.
1. Cultivate an always-learning mindset
Technology is a field that is always changing, and the change is coming faster than it ever has before. With that kind of acceleration, along with the fact that technology is becoming intrinsic to every part of the business or organization, it's important to develop a mindset that you need to always be learning.
"In IT you always have to keep learning," said Sherman Gossett, a quality assurance engineer at iSolved HCM. "It's not just four years of university and do your job. You have to really want to search for new knowledge. Enjoy that search, especially nowadays with technology shifting so quickly."
Deborah Graham, senior business intelligence developer at UMass Memorial Health Care agreed.
"Never stop learning," she said. "I can't think of any better advice. There is always going to be something new coming down the pike. Big change is inevitable."
Whether it's learning about new technologies like AI and machine learning, or a programming language like Python, or a new way to deploy your infrastructure such as hybrid cloud, learning about these new technologies will keep you and your skills fresh for the changing market.
There are so many new ways to learn new skills, too. You could sign up for a boot camp, take an online course, study for a particular certification or take advantage of vendor-provided training. You just need to make the commitment to invest in yourself.
2. Learn the business
Sure, it's important to keep up with the fast-moving changes to technology. But if you want to be deeply valuable to your organization you should expand your education beyond technology to the business or organization where you work. The technology doesn't stand alone in an isolated IT department anymore. It underpins the entire organization. That's why your understanding of how the organization works combined with your tech expertise will be deeply valuable to your business.
"Learn the business you are working for," said Mark Robinson, VP of IT at MY CU Services. He started his career working in a manufacturing environment, and he didn't hesitate then to grab safety glasses and head to the manufacturing floor. "I like to know everything about the business. They used to say I want IT to be aligned with the business. It takes time to learn the products, the strategy, and the markets."
Robinson is not alone in this recommendation. Industry leaders say that aligning IT with business goals is essential now that technology has been intertwined with every aspect of the business. But the benefits may go beyond just powering your digital transformation. It's culturally beneficial, too.
"That kind of thing really helps invest IT people in their environment," Robinson said.
3. Consider getting into cybersecurity
After working in a few different functional areas of IT, one of our respondents who works for a Fortune 500 company moved into cybersecurity and never looked back. If you are looking for job security, interesting work, and the opportunity to work with some of the newest technology available today, cybersecurity is a great field to consider, he said. But there are other benefits, too.
"Security is good because you have the people interaction, but you also have the tinkering," he said. "You get to look at new products and solutions -- every few years there's new technology to play with."
Many areas of IT have become commodities, which make them easier for management to outsource, including networking and software-defined networks, running cables, and even server management. Security is not a commodity. It's always changing and therefore is a fairly secure specialty within IT.
4. Develop leadership and management skills
The fact that you need technology skills has always been a given in IT. After all, that's what the job is all about. But talk to a few recruiters or a few IT leaders who have climbed the corporate ladder and they will tell you that people skills are also essential. What's more, if you already have a strong technology background, you may want to also work on developing leadership and management skills.
"IT has always lacked these skills," said Jonathan Vester, VP of Technology and CIO at Nash Community College. "You need to be able to relate to your fellow employees on a personal level and not just be the service that they call when something is broken."
As technology evolves into an integral part of every organization, IT professionals who can master both the technology and the people skills will be positioned to advance.
5. Work on your public speaking and presentation skills
If you solve an IT problem and no one notices, have you really solved it? (Just like that tree that falls in the woods only makes a sound if someone hears it.)
Avik Chopra, VP, global head solutions for TTH at NIIT Technologies Ltd., says that public speaking is the most important skill that any technology worker can develop if he or she wants career advancement.
For instance, Chopra recently attended his company's global summit. The person who was noticed at the summit was the one who presented well. Other presenters may have known the technology inside and out or presented interesting ideas. But if they cannot present that message well, they won't be noticed, and their message will suffer, too.
"That is what makes you stand out," Chopra said. "Presentation is the No. 1 skill to get you ahead. It's not enough to know something well and do something well. You have to present it well, too."
Chopra noted that his company employs quite a few IT people who are great at technology.
"But they don't get ahead because they become a commodity," he said. But if you can present to your coworkers or to clients, you will stand out from the crowd.
For more on career advancement, check out these articles:
IT Careers: 12 Job Skills in Demand for 2020
IT Education is Confusing, but It's Critical for Success
Mid-career Decision Point: New IT Certifications?
IT Careers: How to Get a Job in DevOps