Crafting a successful IT career that keeps you engaged, satisfied, and growing is a balancing act. Stay too long with one technology — or one job — and the industry may shift without you realizing it. Take on too much and your team and your own well-being will suffer.
So what’s the best way to lay a foundation for a career that’s challenging and rewarding, amid the day-to-day project demands and workplace stress? Tech leaders say it’s important to regularly step back, analyze where you are and where you’re going so you can determine what you want and avoid the pitfalls of a stalled career.
Read on for expert tips on recognizing the signs of a dead-end IT career path, and how to avoid the damage they cause.
Having a one-track mind
Alex Lam, chief strategy and business development officer of TechDemocracy, argues that hitching your career to a particular company’s product or platform could hurt your career over time as that technology runs its course.
“Technical people often build deep subject matter knowledge around their area of focus, often a specific vendor’s technology,” Lam says. “There’s no guarantee that current success will be transferable to an industry transition.”
He advises taking a broader approach and obtaining hands-on experience with a variety of vendor platforms — including partner technologies.
Gabe Monroy, chief product officer at DigitalOcean, warns that a single-minded focus on existing tools and procedures can leave IT pros out of touch with broader industry trends.
“IT is a fast-moving industry,” Monroy says. “Take time out of your day to learn about what’s new in your industry — new tech, new tools, new processes, new ways of doing things. This way you can get a sense of evolving trends that can help you in your current role, or help you find a new role that will advance your career.”
Subscribing to a savior mentality
IT pros frequently struggle to balance individual contributions with teamwork, Lam says, taking on too much at the expense of the group’s dynamic — and their career.
“One challenge for IT professionals is that balance between being a strong individual contributor versus strong team player,” he says. “Most IT careers are very task-oriented and delivery- and milestone-driven. Individuals need to focus on delivering on their action items, and communicating clearly to integrate into the overall project workflow.”
Lam says he’s seen breakdowns in teamwork when a technologist tries to put the team on their back. And this has only gotten more complicated during the increasingly remote environments fed by the coronavirus pandemic, he says. Without a strong sense of being part of a team, there is a greater likelihood that IT pros will go it alone. Lam advises developing team relationships by finding common interests that can be discussed in casual moments as a way of decreasing the likelihood of succumbing to the savior mentality.
“There is a lack of team camaraderie-building activities that normally would occur in the office — coffee chats in the breakroom, happy hour or lunch with coworkers. I see many companies now trying to find creative ways for their employees to interact more with their team members in casual settings,” he says. “Ironically, these end up being things that are remote still and over Zoom — like remote happy hour or remote scavenger hunt — so it will be interesting to see what new organizational behavior strategies can be developed in the future to improve remote camaraderie.”
Staying put for too long
Some IT pros stay too long with jobs that offer little opportunity for growth, afraid to make a change, says Nabila Salem, president at Revolent. But that sense of security won’t make up for the long-term harm it does to a career.
“Beware of roles that offer little to no opportunities for development or career advancements,” Salem says. With all the options available to skilled tech workers, she says, there’s no need to accept “workplaces in which you feel like you’re not empowered and treated with the respect you deserve — as it’s much easier to find another job, than it is to recover from a toxic one.”
Missing signs of a toxic gig
Some signs of a damaging work environment may be subtle, Salem says, and it’s smart to tune in to your own instincts on whether the job is burning you out.
“The less obvious, and often harder-to-spot factors that might be damaging your career can be just as harmful as the blaringly obvious ones,” she says. “These are less obvious because they tend to be habits, rather than just a one-off episode. Things like sacrificing your lunch break to do more work, skipping your L&D time every week, or working far too many hours regularly leave little room for career development or even motivation to work a role you would have loved under different circumstances.
Although it might not seem like it, she adds, “you risk watching years of your career pass you by if you allow these habits to take over your routine.”
Shortchanging soft skills
If you’re not able to get your point across, to speak up when necessary, and to resolve interpersonal conflicts, you could be hindering your career without realizing it, Salem says.
“Interpersonal issues arising from disagreements over policy, conflicts resulting from a clash in personal or professional values, or even ego conflicts can often be mitigated with good communication skills,” she says. “Those lacking skills like active listening, negotiation, empathy, and respect can often find themselves in situations that are hard to get out of. And with employers putting immense value on a candidate’s soft skills — there’s perhaps never been a better moment to make sure yours are in check, especially if you feel like you’re looking at making the next step in your career.”
In today’s shifting IT landscape, Monroy agrees that technical competency isn’t enough to stay ahead.
“Verbal and written communication skills are of utmost importance,” he says. “Those who prioritize developing clear and concise communication in the workplace almost always accelerate in their career faster than their peers, even if they aren’t the most technically savvy.”
Saying yes to the stress
Freshworks CIO Prasad Ramakrishnan says trying to please everyone by overenthusiastically taking on projects can also kill an IT pro’s career.
“In an effort to please customers — including users and employees — many may have the tendency to say yes to everything. If we do not deliver on our commitments because of the ‘yes’ syndrome, IT professionals will lose credibility, and ultimately impact their career,” Ramakrishnan says. “Strong analytical skills are needed to rationally analyze every situation, so the optimal answer or solution can be provided.”
Failing to learn from others
Monroy advises IT pros to look for insights from others rather than always trying to show that they’re the smartest person in the room.
“Giving unsolicited advice is something everyone likes to do, but it can be damaging in a workplace environment,” Monroy says. “We all lack context on our co-workers’ challenges, so our advice is nowhere near as good as we think it is. Instead of giving advice, try to spend more time asking questions and developing empathy with your co-workers.”
Learning agility and collaboration skills are key to career growth in the IT industry, says Max Chan, CIO of Avnet.
“Technology improves customer relationships and drives overall business,” Chan says. “Technologists need to continue to have an open mind and learn from everyone they come across.”
Missing the big picture
Tech professionals benefit from being able to squarely focus on the problem at hand, but they can also suffer from hyper focus, a less obvious way to hurt your career.
“A successful IT career requires a dual thought process of assessing every challenge both tactically for an immediate win and strategically for future success and longevity,” says David Brault, product marketing manager at Mendix. “When a project is tackled with ease and speed top of mind, it may not adapt well down the line as technology and business requirements change. A successful IT person needs to hone the skill of thinking short and long term.”
Putting too much emphasis on perfection
Freshworks’ Ramakrishnan cites the classic warning that perfection is the enemy of the good. IT pros can set themselves backward when they overcomplicate potential solutions and suffer “analysis paralysis,” he says.
“In an effort to try to get the perfect solution, they end up forgetting the bigger picture and end up focusing on the wrong things,” he says. “Over analysis of a situation without a clear understanding of the big picture can be career limiting. When you work in IT you should be willing to take smart risks. There may not be a perfect solution that is available in the market to solve the problem at hand. You should take the best possible solution on the market and adapt it to your business needs instead of using bloated, outdated solutions and waiting for the perfect tool.”
Not building business sense
Not every IT pro seeks out a leadership track in their career, but for those who are interested in management, it’s critical to develop business acumen along with tech chops.
“They need to change their approach and mindset to move into management roles,” says Avnet’s Chan. “They really need to develop their business acumen and understand the role that IT plays in supporting the business. People end up hurting their IT careers when they don’t know what they want out of it. It is important to recognize that if their aspiration is to become CIO, they can’t just stay in the technology track. They need to understand what it takes to be a manager to allow them to move up the ladder.”
Even those without management aspirations can benefit from developing a sense for business. After all, knowing what motivates colleagues outside of IT, and how to communicate with them, greatly impacts any tech initiative’s chances of success. As such, all IT pros will benefit from being able to succinctly make a point in meetings without using tech jargon, Chan suggests, or risk losing their audience.
“If people don’t understand the IT speak, they won’t engage,” he says. “To be successful, engagement and collaboration is key.”