Your Career, Your Call (Part 1)

2/2/2013 4:43:37 PM

The new economy puts you in the driver’s seat of your career. Can you handle it? We’ll show you how.

The days of building a lifelong IT career at a single company are long gone. And now, the days of building a lifelong IT career just within the IT department are dwindling, too.

Technology professionals today are just as often advancing their careers through a marketing group or supply chain organizations as they are through an application development team or software quality group. Tech staffers are migrating into new roles frequently with non-T job titles throughout the enterprise, working on an array of projects that require tech savvy in addition to business and process knowledge, management skills and more.

Description: You can’t think too far out

You can’t think too far out. It’s more important to be flexible enough in the three to five year time frame. Don’t say, ’20 years from now, I want to be a CIO,’ because then, that’s all you’re looking for.

To move ahead in 2013, you’ll first to drop any lingering notions of vertical ladder-climbing. After that, it’s all about exiting your comfort zone and actively seeking out new and different opportunities, rather than relying on traditional organizational charts, human resources or even your own immediate manager. Your very best career strategy, experts say, it to take over the navigation controls yourself. Your very career and livelihood depend on the out-of-the-box thinking that goes into formulating and then executing such a strategy.

There’s no doubt the process of career strategizing can be daunting, but it can also be empowering because your strategy will be based on your individual passions and skills as well as your career goals.

We asked veteran IT professionals to share their best advice for mapping and continually updating a personalized guide too your career future. You can start by deleting your old plans, because 2013 marks the start of a radically different IT career landscape.

Do Your Research

Not all career strategies must be drawn entirely from scratch. Check first to see what kind of career tools or development programs your potential or current employer may have on the books. “Find out if they’re going to vest in your career and ask about movement of IT people into different roles,” advises Andrew Macaulay, senior vice president of IT at Bellevue, Wash-based Clearwire, which builds and operates mobile broadband networks. While most IT professional are indeed on their own, an increasing number or companies have or are developing detailed plans for rotating and advancing employees through different roles.

“We have specific job descriptions that help employees see what they need to do go get to where they want to go,” Macaulay says. “People are laying out their careers three years at time and creating their individual development goals to get there.”

At BNSF Railway in Fort Worth, Texas, recent college graduates are recruited in to a management training program, which includes rotating through various assignments across the freight transportation company. “We spend time educating people in what BNSF is about and how learn overnight. We’re trying to accelerate the learning curve.”

Olsovsky says teaching participants about BNSF’s culture is one of the key goals. “While going through all of their assignments, people learn that BNSF is an operations-oriented company. That’s the culture. We move freight,” she says. “In an operations culture, what gets rewarded are those things that deal with operations, like dealing with a crisis,” she says. As an IT professional, “you have to figure out a company’s culture and decide if it’s for you,” she adds. “It’s a way to shortcut your way to rewards. One area where I see people miss steps is not under-standing the culture of the company they’re in.”

Time Your Moves

Jim Clementson, director of technology at Providence Health, likens the points on a career plan to steppingstones across a stream. Their ultimate purpose is to help you get to the other side, but it’s best to take them one at a time.

“You can’t think too far out. It’s more important to be flexible enough in the three-to-five-year time frame,” he advises. “Don’t say, ’20 years from now, I want to be a CIO,’ because then, that’s all you’re looking for.” It’s more important to be open to a wide range of roles that could broaden your knowledge and help you acquire experience that will serve you well over the long term, he says.

In his own career, Clementson moved from a software developer role at Arco Alaska to the company’s service center, which in turn “opened doors into the infrastructure realm,” he says. He ended up leading a Mac-to-PC migration project. After that, he went back to software development for a while, and then moved in to the healthcare industry. There, his experience with the Arco migration project helped him land a leadership role on an electronic medical record project, and that led to his current role as director of delivery for infrastructure.

“It’s all about looking at what’s available and adjusting things and stretching yourself,” he says. “You have to be comfortable and willing to move into the opportunities that are out there.”

Olsovsky says 18 months to two years is a good benchmark. By then, you understand the role and it’s time to make the next move, she says.

“But you have to be thoughtful about your progression,” she warns. “If you’re an applications developer in marketing systems and you know marketing systems, that’s great. But if the boss has an opening in operations systems, that’s better choice because [you’ll] get an operations back-ground for the next progression. You have to keep your eyes open for side-to-side moves that move you ahead.”

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation

The most effective career strategy is more directional than specific. That is, it may point to an ultimate dream position, such as a directorship or executive management role, but it should also take into account the fact that, inevitably, there are multiple routes to the same destination.

“Statistically, if you look at CIOs, very few of them grow up in just the infra-structure area alone,” says Cora Carmody, CIO at Jacobs Engineering Group, a $15 billion global construction and engineering services company. “We try to keep that in mind for people who are coming up in infrastructure. We want to get them cross-functional experience so they have more capability to take my job.”

Description: you deal with people so your people skills will always need maintenance

I tell people that it doesn’t matter how technical you are; you deal with people so your people skills will always need maintenance. And you’re supporting a business, so you [must continually] learn about the business.

Early on in your career, it’s all about acquiring multiple experiences, according to successful IT veterans.

“The first thing you have to do in your career is touch a lot of things. Check out a bunch of areas and see which ones spark your passion,” says Jamie Hamilton, vice president of software engineering at Quicken Loans in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Quicken is a major online lender, and “the underlying things that makes our whole business possible is technology,” Hamilton notes. “We have a team of 200 software engineers who develop internal applications and other systems for the mortgage process, marking and mobile apps. The tech team takes a lot of responsibility to move the company forward. IT drives the business.” That means a lot of opportunities to move around and gain experience across multiple areas, says Hamilton, adding that “you should remain broad in experience at the beginning and don’t jump into a specialization.”

“Early in their careers, most people do not have an exact idea of what they want to do, mainly because they don’t know what the possibilities are,” says Macaulay. “You don’t know what you don’t know, but meanwhile, there are a number of paths.”

At Clearwire, for example, IT pros can pursue a super-technical individual contributor role, go down a more traditional management track or gain experience in people management and/or project management. Macaulay says he advises employees to volunteer for assignments in all of those areas to get an idea of what they like. His message is, “Identify your passions.”

Jacobs Engineering sets up an individual development plan with each IT employee to learn what skills staffers want to acquire and what their project interests and career goals are. The plan is used as a guide for career rotation roles and cross-functional assignments. “This is something we do, not just for college graduates, but for everybody,” says Carmody.

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