Sometimes, there isn't much you can do to kick-start your career. Not everyone can be lucky enough to get involved in a high-profile project at work, or to develop a talent in a technology that's suddenly in-demand. But it surprises me when IT professionals who aim to move up the career ladders don't take advantage of one resource that's a win-win solution all around: get involved in an open source project.
This is particularly important to women in IT, who can feel that it's hard to get noticed in their companies (see The Executive Woman's Guide to Self-Promotion for general guidelines on how to counter that problem). But it really applies to anyone who wants to gain experience and visibility in the IT department, even if you don't care about becoming a rock star.
As a participant in an open source project, everything is in your control. You pick the project that you think is the most valuable, or in which you can develop the skills you need but can't justify on your résumé. In the universe of open source, you're judged only by what you contribute. Corporate politics aren't an issue. If your code is useful, or your technical documentation is appreciated, or you're just a welcoming voice on the community IRC channel, you have a good chance of being invited to become a committer.
This doesn't necessarily mean leaving your current company; it can generate new opportunities where you currently work. (See The Enterprise Committer: When Your Employee Develops Open-Source Code on the Company Payroll.) Even if you're a volunteer on the open source project (which is probable), you can put as much time into the project as is reasonable for your lifestyle and your interest level. "Becoming known in open source is trivial. Just show up, check the issue queue and start fixing bugs," one developer told me.
That can spell career opportunities for IT professionals who suffer from a lack of company training. One analyst mentioned just-in-passing last week at the Gartner conference that the average enterprise spends only about $500 per year on training and conferences per developer. Want to learn a new language, add a new platform to your arsenal, take on a new kind of responsibility? Your company probably won't foot the bill, so it's up to you to develop new skills. Dive right in.
Yet—to circle back to the relevance to IT women—relatively few women make a point of getting involved, and darnit I wish they'd recognize this opportunity. According to Evans Data's 2008 Developer Relations Programs Survey, women are less likely to develop open source software than were men; just 22 percent of women (versus 32 percent of men) wrote any open source software. Yet open source is as even a playing ground as one could ask for, since every project's membership is self-selected.
I'm not saying that every developer should drop everything and devote herself to an open source project. We all have to think about paying the bills, not to mention finding work/life balance. But instead of dashing off a brief bug report for an open source tool you use, write a fully detailed one with "here's the problem I ran into; here's what I think might be causing it; here's how you might fix it." Submit a patch. Communicate in the IRC or the discussion group. Doing so builds reputation and might lead to you being hired.
I'm also not trying to imply that you should pick a project at random. As in any all-volunteer community, politics can run rampant. "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small," Henry Kissinger said. In my experience, when money isn't the main motivation, other things become important; not all of them are nice. Open source projects (like computer user groups and other community driven organizations) can be very "cliquey;" not all welcome of new ideas or contributors. They all have their own culture. Before you pick a project, read the mailing list archives, subscribe to the list and decide if the style of communication that seems to be the trend is something that fits your style. Then, determine if the project is one to which you would enjoy contributing.