How to work your way to the top

Keep learning and acquiring new skills, because past success does not guarantee future performance.

There is no easy way to fast-track your career. You need the skills, the experience, and a little bit of lady luck.

Saw Ken Wye, president of Southeast Asia, Microsoft, told ZDNet Asia that how fast one advances in his or her career is determined by one's "attitude, skills, competencies and luck".

Saw, a well-known industry personality, added: "A little bit of luck goes a long way in helping to boost a career.


"A little bit of luck goes a long way in helping to boost a career."
--Saw Ken Wye,
Microsoft

"For example, being in the right place at the right time may mean having the opportunity to get that next promotion a little faster. Unfortunately, luck is not within one's control," he noted.

It's hard to say if luck has indeed played a part in Saw's success, but he has made a strong mark in the Singapore IT community, having won industry awards recognizing his outstanding contributions over the years.

Although luck may not be within one's control, attitude, skills and competencies are, said Saw, and that's what IT professionals can bank on.

Having the right attitude can also give a person an edge. "In Microsoft, we look for people with passion and who are prepared to always give their best and more. One must also be genuine, and before expecting a promotion, earn it," Saw explained. "Show your worth to the organization, and you will be rewarded accordingly."

So how does an IT professional remain relevant and employable throughout his or her career? "In our fast changing industry, one needs substance. That's where a commitment to continually upgrade and learn new things is a prerequisite for success," Saw advised.

Not only should one "be prepared to do deep dives if necessary", Saw emphasized the importance of speaking up and asking questions. "Do not be afraid to say, 'I don’t understand' or 'I don't get it'. Asking questions will help in the learning and also help form better judgments," he noted.

Lim Khiang Tong, OCBC Bank's head of technology in Singapore, agreed that there is no easy way to advance in one's career, especially in today's competitive IT industry. "We are competing not only with [workers locally], but with other global IT professionals," said Lim.

Lim noted that those who are "dynamic, adaptable, flexible, open to changes, motivated, enthusiastic, and have good execution skills" will get career advancement opportunities. It is also important to constantly update one's skills and broaden one's knowledge. "Past success does not guarantee future performance," he added.

Big decisions
One question that often pops up throughout one's career is the ease of switching from a technical position to a general or managerial role. Such major life-changing decisions, however, shouldn't be made too hastily.

The first thing one should do, Saw advised, is to do a critical self-analysis.

"There is this common belief that to be successful, one has to be a manager," said Saw. "Ask yourself if you really enjoy managing people and if you enjoy [making decisions like] resource trade-offs."

"One way is to get rotated in various positions every few years."
--Lim Khiang Tong,
OCBC Bank,
on how to gain broader IT management experience

Lim agreed: "It's a major life decision and can be overwhelming at times. Examine your likes and the type of work you really like to do when you are at work. Identify your passion, and research on careers around your passion. It would be ideal if you can leverage on current skills and experiences in your new career."

Management positions require one to have a good understanding of technology but the rest of the time is spent managing the team and the customer, said Saw.

"And the higher you go up the corporate ladder, the more time you spend on people and business issues, and less on technology," Saw added. "So it doesn't really matter what the starting point is, but rather your own inclination and abilities to handle people, negotiate tough trade-offs and revelling in environments where goals may not be clear."

According to Lim, IT professionals should be adaptable and open to changes when deciding to move into a general or management role. "It would be easier if the person is given the opportunity to be exposed to various areas such as IT operations, application development, and systems engineering. One way is to get rotated in various positions every few years," he said.

OCBC Bank encourages inter-discipline transfers and job rotations to give staff opportunities to be exposed to different areas. This way, staff can gain a good understanding of issues and challenges in a technology environment. "As an IT manager or director, these are the basic skills you need to have in order to confidently manage any work-related crisis," Lim said.

However, moving further up the ranks to management level is not the only career path for IT professionals.

"I would also argue that there is an equally satisfying technical path. For example, being a respected guru in a particular field," said Saw. "As an IT professional, you always have two paths. Choose wisely and follow your heart. Be happy in your role and you will be successful."

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