There’s no user manual for building a long, successful career in IT, but sometimes there seems to be a secret handshake. It’s not always apparent why certain colleagues always move ahead, with access to the latest technology, the biggest budgets, and best projects — while your career seems to be in a holding pattern.
Getting out of a rut and developing a strategy to advance your career could be just a matter of getting the right insight at the right time. Successful tech pros know how to add value to their organizations, go forward confidently and, when necessary, bail out and start again. We’ve gleaned some of their best advice and strategies for communicating, risk assessment and problem solving.
Here’s how to keep your career on the best possible path, whether you’re just starting out or looking to make a change.
Find your calling
One of the appealing aspects of working in technology is the ability to choose your adventure, to find an area that speaks to you and pursue it.
“If you love security, you can prevent hackings and data leaks,” says Anthony James, founder and CEO of Linux Academy. “With a love for development and IT, you can merge the two together and work in DevOps. When you pick the right part of IT for you, learning will be fun and come easy. This industry likes to look at the norm and challenge its assumptions. Learn to do the same and welcome it.”
Keep an eye out for opportunities
When Mike Coakley graduated college, he found himself at a bank, cold-calling potential customers about refinancing their mortgages. But, he says, the software used to run the business — and to pay the employees — badly needed upgrading. He took on the work himself and the president of his division transferred him to IT. He’s currently CIO at the City of White Plains, New York, and an adjunct professor of computer science and information technology at Pace University.
“Keep your eyes and ears open, because opportunities show themselves to us all of the time,” Coakley says. “Be prepared to take a risk and try something new. If you fail, make sure you learned something from the experience.”
Polish your soft skills
Focus on the fundamentals, argues Anudeep Parhar, CIO at Entrust Datacard. Soft skills are hard to find, won’t go out of date, and make you hard to replace.
“Technical skills are ever evolving and while it is important to stay with the times, it’s even more important to develop those new skills on top of a good base,” Parhar says. “The most important skills to curate are problem solving, solution development, sharp attention to detail and a commitment to continuous learning. Then — even when you don’t have a specific skill set or depth of knowledge — you can be trusted to develop it.”
If you want it, ask for it
Some IT careers suffer from a lack of participation. If you want to take on a challenging project or make a move to a different division or manage a team, you are your best advocate.
“Do not be afraid to ask for what you want or need,” says Harry Moseley, CIO of Zoom Video Communications. “Your needs are unlikely to be met — both personally and professionally — unless you make them clear. People cannot be expected to intuitively understand what you think or what your aspirations are.”
Related video: 8 reasons why your resume isn’t getting noticed
Hit the reset button
Shailesh Rao, COO of BrowserStack, says some of his best career moves came from simply shaking things up when he didn’t feel challenged. So, when his career froze, he rebooted.
“When I got too comfortable in my job, I switched,” Rao says. “When I couldn’t change in a given company, I changed companies. It’s led to some of the most amazing learning experiences in my career, not to mention building some of my best personal and professional relationships. If you’re working in IT, you’re already lucky — it’s about as universal and recession-proof a career as any. Don’t give up that advantage by being stagnant in one place or one job.”
Sandeep Gopisetty, director of IBM Cloud and Mobile Enterprise Research, says a curious mind is key to getting ahead. And staying there requires flying above the radar.
“Have a steadfast commitment to embrace changes, accept challenges and win the battle to get recognized,” he says. “Be infinitely curious and leverage your learning and understanding to solve a problem.”
Playing it safe may have its rewards, but gaining ground isn’t necessarily one of them. An exceptional IT career can, at times, be uncomfortable, say our experts. “Some people will always try to convince you to avoid risks and stick to the safest path,” says Hunter Muller, president and CEO of HMG Strategy. “Ignore that advice. Follow your instincts and take risks when you feel they’re justified. Learn from your mistakes and pivot quickly from them.”
Pick up tough assignments
Since getting noticed is key, taking on unglamorous tasks can help you network and develop a reputation as someone to be counted on.
“Early in my career, I decided that I would specialize and volunteer in doing the types of jobs no one else wanted,” says Saied Seghatleslami, president and COO of Pypestream. “They were always essential to the success of the business and typically hard and unpleasant — and frequently not glorious. It was always noticed and appreciated. It has also helped me build unique skills that are usually in demand.
You can construct a solid IT career on a foundation of progressively better gigs, with new challenges and responsibilities — and hard-won experience — developed along the way. If you’re just starting out, right-size your expectations, says Al Smith, chief technology officer at iCIMS.
“Just because you’re not getting a job leading product development at Google right after graduation, doesn’t mean your career is doomed or you’re never going to land the position that you want,” Smith says. “Experience that you gain in an internship or an entry-level position, even if it feels outside of your field, can really lay the foundation of your career by building the skills you need. Today’s college graduates seem to realize they may not get a job in their chosen field on the first try. Employees who have this open-minded approach will be better off than their peers when it comes to landing a job in IT and moving up in their career.”
Fight off redundancy
Honing your critical thinking skills can help avoid losing a job due to near-future threats to your career like AI and automation. “Approach problems from both a micro and macro level,” says Leeyen Rogers, vice president of marketing at JotForm. “Instead of solely focusing on execution, think about the ‘why’ from many angles — and focus on understanding instead of just carrying something out.”
She also advises applying the classic fake-it-to-make-it strategy to the quickly shifting world of technology. “Get rid of imposter syndrome. You can achieve much more than you think,” Rogers says. “Don’t let your age, or anything else about you that you can’t control, make you think that you are less effective, talented, or knowledgeable than anyone else. If you don’t know something, then you can learn it.”
Focus on the bottom line
If you’re looking to boost your career, it’s important to lift your company as well as yourself, says Marco Cirillo, CTO and co-founder of Kibii. The skills you develop should help turn a profit.
“To become more valuable, you need to develop your skills around generating revenue and reducing costs as companies, now more than ever, focus on cutting back,” Cirillo says. “Don’t focus on developing skills in which the job is an expense for the business. At the end of the day, businesses are interested in their bottom line, so prove that your skill set is an asset to generating revenue, and not an expense.”
Look the part
You probably didn’t get into IT for the fashion, but if you’re career is stalling, it might be time to think about how you present yourself.
“If you’re trying to convince a business owner that you have the answer to an issue that could impact all of the business operations — which is often the case in IT — it’s important to establish a level of respect up front,” says Frank Downs, director of cyber security practice at ISACA. “Someone could have the solution to a serious technical problem — yet, if they look like they rolled in from the street, they have to try that much harder to get the stakeholders to listen to them.”
Go where the action is
The advice to go west — specifically California — might spur debate, considering expensive housing costs and the burgeoning or established tech centers in Austin, Raleigh-Durham, and elsewhere. But Amir Sharif, co-founder and vice president of business development at Aporeto, says it was the best career advice he ever received.
“If you’re pursuing a career in the financial sector, you go to New York or London,” Sharif says. “If you’re interested in the entertainment industry, you go to LA. You head to Silicon Valley. Being in Silicon Valley puts you in the proximity of the best tech minds and companies in the world. This proximity gives access to a network of people who are creating the future. Go where the future is being made.”
Pair problems with solutions
If you’ve identified something at work that is, in fact, a bug instead of a feature, make sure you’ve thought through potential solutions before you bring it up, says Zoom’s Moseley.
“It’s your job to be close enough to the issues to always have thoughts about your departments’ challenges and how one might overcome them,” Moseley says. “You may not have the ideal solution, but offering an idea demonstrates that you have taken the time to analyze the challenge and thought through possible resolutions. While this is true for any professional position, it’s especially applicable in technology because it is likely there are many options for overcoming any given challenge.”
And while you don’t want to be part of the problem, don’t be afraid to speak up, especially when it’s for the good of the organization, says Patrick Turner, CTO of Small Footprint. He’s still haunted by not pushing back when signs of trouble appeared on a project from early in his career.
“I brought it up to the leadership but was told to keep it to myself and everything would be fine,” Turners says. “It wasn’t. I regret staying quiet to this day. Conversely, I’ve had many occasions where I spoke up, even in situations that could have been seen as stepping out of bounds, but that proved to be good intuition and ended up preventing bigger problems. It might not always make everyone happy nor will it always prevent problems, but in the end you can at least sleep knowing that you did what you could to help a tough situation.”
Provide value to the company
A lack of confidence can lead some IT pros to look inward a bit too much. This can lead to stagnation and friction with coworkers.
“It’s surprising how often we let our own insecurities get in the way of helping ourselves or helping our companies,” says Jason Tan, CEO and co-founder of Sift Science. “Understand what value looks like and visualize your work-self through that lens.”
Surprisingly, Tan says one of the best work experiences of his life came out of one of the most daunting career setbacks: He got laid off. “I was arrogant and despite getting promoted regularly, I failed to value my opportunity. The experience humbled me and opened my eyes to how much I didn’t know. If you want to future-proof your career, keep an open mind and be prepared to work.”