Developers: Getting ahead is about more than programming languages

Three tech chiefs give their best-practice tips tor up-and-coming professionals who want to climb the IT leadership ladder.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

For IT professionals keen to progress there are many different routes to the top, and each requires a particular set of talents. So what should you focus on if you want to move up? Where should IT professionals focus if they want to develop their careers and climb as high up the ladder as they can? Three IT leaders share their best-practice tips.

Keep in step by continually learning

Diarmuid Gill, chief technology officer at advertising specialist Criteo, says the most important advice for an up-and-coming IT professional is to never stop learning.

"The IT world is constantly changing, so it is incredibly important for IT professionals to stay up to date with the latest innovations," he says. "The shelf life of modern technologies is getting shorter and shorter."

That creates pressures for career-minded technologists, particularly if you're aiming high.

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From a career perspective, IT professionals will often reach a point where they have to choose between becoming a technical specialist or moving down the management path. But even for those on the management path it is incredibly important that they stay up to date with what is new in tech as it becomes all too easy to fall out of step, he said.

Gill says another trend within the IT industry is for companies to become more customer-focused in how they develop their products and services. In light of this, ambitious IT professionals must develop an understanding of the clients' needs as well as the intricacies of the code.

"They should discuss requirements directly with them where possible or else with their points of contact within their own organisation, such as sales or business development. Having direct feedback and input from clients means the IT professionals will have a far greater chance of delivering something that will meet their needs," says Gill.

Hone your collaborative capabilities

Malcolm Lowe, head of IT at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), is another tech chief who believes focusing on the needs of the user is the key to career-development success. He advises other IT professionals to couch everything they do in business outcomes and user needs – because, at the end of the day, that's what you're providing.

"It's about going to speak with people and doing research – that's the way to do it," says Lowe. "Go out and talk to the people who are actually going to use the service."

He says the key benefit of modern technology is that IT professionals can create something quickly. Rather than the old way of working, when developers tended to work in isolation on a product until it was completed, smart tech employees focus on engagement and continually show their working to the people who will use their products.

"That allows you to get instant feedback," says Lowe, suggesting that up-and-coming IT professionals have opportunities that weren't afforded to their predecessors. "I wish I was 21 again with all the technology we've got now. I could do some brilliant things."

He says up-and-coming IT professionals should focus on ensuring that their iterative way of working is supported by a flexible approach to development. Spending time on honing your collaborative abilities will mean you understand users – and it's those users who are most likely to come up with the next great use case for technology

"Don't try and do everything at once because you'll fail," he says. "Start small – understand what the minimum viable product is that's going to deliver the biggest value. Keep speaking to users, keep finding the next requirement and keep thinking about adding that on. And once that happens, you get a snowball effect and projects take on a life of their own."

Have a passion and a purpose

Ian Cohen, chief product and technology officer at transport specialist Addison Lee, started out in the IT academy at finance giant Lloyds. When he moved into IT leadership, Cohen says he got some of the best leadership training available. People at a high level gave him advice and guidance. And the in noughties, he met people who gave him a break – his COO at the FT gave him his first C-suite role.

While modern IT professionals will encounter a different training and development landscape today, that doesn't mean there are more limits on opportunity, he says. While corporate training academies are no longer the norm, IT professionals have a much broader range of areas to test their aptitudes. Cohen advises up-and-coming candidates to grab their chances.

"There has never been a more exciting time to be in tech. The stuff we do in tech is now so fundamental to society, be that how we live, why we live, or to climate-change solutions. Technology is strategic," he says.

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For years, Cohen says IT leaders had to argue about the case for a tech budget. Now, that's not even up for debate; you can't take a step without technology. Cohen says IT professionals should embrace the fact that they work in such an exciting, fast-paced industry. The opportunities are plentiful because technology has moved from being a super-niche area to part of the basic business vocabulary.

"The really nice thing about that is you can indulge your passion," says Cohen. "So if you're passionate about climate change or health care or whatever it is, you can indulge that through technology. So actually, I think the most important thing is to have a passion and a purpose."

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