A lot of technology professionals are frustrated with the IT profession. They can’t find a job or move into the position that they want. They’re always hearing that demand exists, but that’s not what their personal experience has shown them. They feel they have the skills for the job, and have even put in the time it takes to be qualified or certified in the technologies in demand. But the requirements for IT career development remain elusive.
For some IT professionals, the frustration has mounted to the point that they are at a loss as to what they need to do to fit into the future of a profession they have devoted themselves to. Abandon it? I don’t think so. In today’s economic conditions, with ever more intense competition and the ever-faster emergence of new technologies, the demand for people who can effectively apply IT to business needs and strategic goals has never been greater.
But notice that I didn’t say that business simply needs IT practitioners. It does, but more specifically, it requires “people who can effectively apply IT to business needs and strategic goals.” The IT professionals that employers consider to be valuable to their business have not only the right technical skills, but also the capabilities needed for productive business contributions over the long term.
But what about those seemingly mysterious criteria for the jobs you want? It’s straightforward really. You need to demonstrate that you are aware of business needs and can find new and innovative ways to achieve them. You need to speak the language of business. And just as you have always fortified yourself with training in the latest technologies, you need to consistently apply yourself to the acquisition of the softer skills needed to:
- Communicate in business terms.
- Be a better leader in the enterprise.
- Negotiate the client ecosystem efficiently.
- Inspire your team.
- Become invaluable to the success of your clients.
Is it daunting to have so much more to learn? Well, the good news about the soft skills that are critical to the development of IT careers is that, unlike technology skills, they do not change. In fact they continue to build on themselves. And if you’ve been ignoring them in favor of more and more hard-skill certifications, then you have been limiting yourself in the marketplace, because these career-building skills are increasingly considered more valuable to employers than technical proficiency. In other words, you need both, and if all you have is technical proficiency — even extraordinary technical proficiency — you are going nowhere. But if you pair that technical proficiency with extraordinary business awareness and responsiveness, then the sky is the limit.
Know where you want to go
Early on in my career, I relied on what I call the “lucky shotgun” approach to career choices. I would pursue various training opportunities that appealed to me or seemed promising, and I pursued every opportunity for advancement that came along. For a time, it worked very well, and I felt that I was being carried along by forward momentum despite any real plan. Eventually, though, my progress slowed and I started second-guessing my career decisions. That’s when someone told me that I should know what I was looking for before I started looking. I’ve since heard this expressed memorably as “If you don’t know your destination, any road will do.”
Taking that advice to heart, I started to develop conscious intent, which allowed me to make steady small steps with the potential to make me a more attractive option when an opportunity arose that fit with my goals. I developed a series of short-term, highly specific goals that I could prepare myself for, and the achievement of each one made me feel once again that I was on the move. Of course, at the same time I held on to a more vague long-term goal, but achieving it instantly was not my focus. You could think of all this as akin to being on a riverbank. You want to work your way upstream, and you have a general idea that you might want to be on the other side of the river at some point. But standing on your riverbank, you can only see as far as the next bend, and that’s your immediate goal. Eventually, after reaching many bends, you might work your way to a place where you can easily get across the river. Try it too soon, though, and you just might end up in a backwater — or even washed back downstream.
So, be specific, and be realistic. You have to set achievable objectives, so that you establish a pattern of success.
Consider everything, and when you decide on an objective, write it down. Don’t limit your goals to new positions. Yes, you might set your sights on a managerial position, but other legitimate goals are to receive more recognition, to improve relationship building, to move into a more challenging situation, to learn new techniques or technologies, to gain international experience, to broaden or deepen expertise, to improve work-life balance, to increase compensation, to take advantage of educational benefits. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
A key factor in establishing realistic goals is to evaluate your aptitudes and how well they line up with the objective you are considering. This will help you channel your ambition in directions that are best suited to your natural abilities and strengths, and alternatively will help you set up intermediate goals aimed at developing the aptitudes you need to achieve any particular goal.
What happens when you are consciously selecting goals is that you become more active in finding out what qualifications are needed and more proactive at being truly prepared when the right opportunity arises. And opportunity does seem to arise, at least for those who are prepared for them. The opportunities that present themselves might not always line up perfectly with your stated intent, but the beauty of preparing for one thing is that it almost always seems to prepare you for many things. You can’t always predict what will come along, and my advice is to try for everything that seems to fit your agenda, and then make the most of it.
When I say be prepared to take advantage of opportunities and go for every new chance that comes along, I am not advocating the do-whatever-it-takes approach to career advancement. Not at all. To have real long-term success that is deeply satisfying, you must never embrace the notions that something is your due and that it’s OK to compromise your integrity in the interest of advancing your own cause. That is not career building. It’s careerism. It inhibits personal development and is self-defeating in the long run.
You are not going to be rewarded every time you apply for on an open position. Establish relationships and make friends in the interview process, be gracious if a decision doesn’t go your way, and learn from the experience so you’ll be better prepared next time.
What it takes to get ahead
Now, let’s get back to the question of what hiring managers are looking for beyond technical know-how. It’s many things, actually, and even though no one on the planet will fully meet all of the requirements I list below, that doesn’t stop us CIO types from seeking them. In part, that is because we are looking beyond what a candidate is to the candidate’s potential to grow in terms of business value.
Decision-makers for the position you are interviewing for may attempt to gain some insight about some of the following characteristics, which I have organized into the four categories in bold:
1. A business perspective
Interviewers want to know whether you are oriented toward the business or toward cool technologies. They will lean toward the candidate who has both an interest in and an understanding of how the business acquires its customers and keeps them, an awareness of critical success factors and what role IT plays in them, and a disposition to continuously avoid cost, improve service and increase revenue with the ever more effective use of IT. Without that perspective, your interest in cool technology is out of step with the business’s needs.
Ability to be comfortable at all business levels
Are you candid and friendly? Do you show a willingness to share and exchange knowledge at all levels? Can you convey that you thoroughly understand business management challenges? Can you provide examples of business goals or tasks you’ve had, the activities you undertook and the results you’ve achieved?
For some positions, interviewers will want to know whether you can look beyond business value (as important as that is) to such matters as positioning the enterprise for industry leadership, achieving operational excellence and improving business intelligence and customer intimacy, and whether you have the disposition to initiate exploratory strategic discussions around emerging technologies.
An awareness of technological trends
More than technical competence, what is being sought here is someone who knows enough about current technologies to estimate their life cycles, who can identify which emerging technologies should be watched and explain why, and who can outline some of the likely next new things in business terms.
Ability to measure and improve IT service quality
What’s wanted is a person who knows practical and proven ways to do this, who has experience in making it happen and who is able to describe how a form of continuous improvement should be implemented.
2. Success in challenging situations
Can you describe difficult events from your past career with objectivity? Interviewers aren’t necessarily interested in hearing about an unending string of successes; be open about failures, while emphasizing the lessons learned. Also of interest will be how you went about recognizing any special contributions from team members who helped you through a tough time.
Superb communication skills
This one is likely to be sought no matter what position is at stake. Communication of all forms (written, spoken, in presentation) will be evaluated, so you need to be able to demonstrate these skills on your résumé, in your cover letter and, of course, during the interview itself. The reason this skill is given so much weight is that IT must be a proactive partner, not a reactive bystander, to the business. Here’s a clue for you: The effective IT communicator does not use the jargon of IT. Speak the language of the business.
Proven leadership capability
This is characterized by vision, exemplary standards of behavior, the ability to inspire others, experience in introducing change, a track record of being entrusted with complex tasks of wide scope, the facility of being at ease handling broad responsibility areas, the knack for achieving stellar team performance (despite that the unplanned always happens) and a willingness to share credit, among other things. Are you someone to trust with significant enterprise resources?
Proven ability to introduce beneficial change
Here, employment decision-makers will want to know how collaboration, persuasion and communication were used to gain buy-in for change, what conditions or circumstances were improved and how the results were quantified (especially when dealing with time-sensitive or critical situations).
3. Long-standing professional relationships
Do you show interest in your colleagues, the people on your team and the people you report to? Do you demonstrate that you care about their well-being, even taking the time to help improve it? Do you stay in contact with people you once worked closely with? Do you have a pattern of exchanging help and guidance with such people? Are your relationships — in the IT profession, in the broader business world and in the vendor community — constructive and positive? Hiring managers will want to know these things so they can weed out those who are poor at relationship building.
Excellent three-way and client references
Employers increasingly want to see how candidates are perceived by those who have worked for them or alongside them and by those who have supervised them.
4. Work-life balance
Believe it or not, the person who is consumed by career will be passed over in favor of the one who is more balanced. That is because it is now generally recognized that steadily productive and innovative contributors take care of themselves, their family and their professional needs in proper proportion. They demonstrate personal development. They also establish exemplary standards of behavior as a kind of team value proposition.
Willingness to relocate
This is a question that wasn’t asked in days of yore, when the assumption was that all the candidates were heads of household whose careers came above all else. So today, the question becomes, “If it were right for you, your family and your work-life balance, would you consider relocating?” If it can work for you and your family situation, you might want to welcome this idea. Relocation was very beneficial for all concerned in the course of my career. The same thing applies to travel.
A record of steadily making career-building moves
This means having career direction in mind and a record of progress in that regard.
Knowledge of your own value proposition …
… and the ability to express it simply; for example: “I have a significant aptitude for optimizing processes and integrating technology solutions from a business perspective.” Of course, you have to be able to back up such statements with examples.
What else could you possibly need?
Just this: Believe in yourself. If you have well-grounded faith in your qualifications and ability to meet the challenge before you, chances are you will be unanimously chosen over an otherwise identically qualified candidate. Employers know this quality when they encounter it, and they value it highly enough that it can make up for otherwise less-than-perfect qualifications. Why? Because nothing turns out exactly as planned. When surprises crop up, employers know, the best results are going to come about when they have put someone with self-belief in charge of the challenge.
You have it. Let it come through.
Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way, from which this article was adapted. He can be reached at [email protected]