Lunch conversations with Ken: IT career advancement

How long does it take to reach the top of your game in the IT business? The answer might depend on how much you schmooze and network. But it helps to know a few things along the way too.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

I once opened a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant that read, "A wise man knows everything; a shrewd one, everybody." As you can imagine, that one really set me off. I've spent my whole life reading, learning, discovering, building, and acquiring all of the possible knowledge and skills so that I could advance and be successful in my career. Of course, it wasn't just the stupid fortune cookie that did it, but it did seem as if that was the proverbial "last straw". The lunch conversation a few days ago took a similar turn—to career and to career advancement in the IT business. We all came to the same conclusion: There really isn't a clearly defined path, but it helps to know someone who can help you along. Having some solid skills never hurt either.

That seems to be the theme of my career. For some reason, I've never been in the "inner circle" and my career has suffered the consequences. I know a lot of stuff, but it's never really been an advantage for me.

During lunch, I recalled that fateful and prophetic fortune cookie message and relayed it to my friends. We all agreed that it isn't so much what you know, but who you know. One guy added that it's also "what you do with who you know".

Valid points.

I've never been one to pull strings, to try to advance myself by hurting anyone else, or to put myself ahead of anyone else more deserving than me. In fact, during my career, I've unashamedly placed several of my coworkers into the spotlight to show how much they shine. It has always been good for them, but alas, not so much for me.

Our conversation meandered around what we were all thinking at the time—that to get ahead, either you have to push someone else out of the way or you have to "kiss up" to your management. Neither choice is particularly palatable, to me at least. I suppose that there are those who will do almost anything to get a promotion or to cut others out of the bonus and raise pools.

The problem of career advancement, or the lack thereof, isn't isolated to the IT industry. When I think of one of my brothers-in-law, who is a teacher, after 25 years he's not a senior teacher, a master teacher, nor even a Teacher II. He is simply a teacher. And that's OK with him. For some reason, we IT folk have a need to advance. If am at the Tech I level, I want to be a Tech II. But I don't want to stay at the Tech II level for very long because there are Tech IIIs with less knowledge and less motivation than I have as a Tech II*. I deserve to be a Tech III. And my friend, who is a Tech IV believes (falsely) that he performs above the Tech IV level and should be a Tech V.

And, so it goes.

The problem is far less complex than the solution. When we tried to come up with a solution, there were no clear answers from the table, not even from myself. The IT business isn't for people with thin skins. You have to deal with problems that are very strange. You have to deal with people who are very strange. And you're asked to stay up all night long to fix things so that the regular employees don't notice any glitches or problems in their environments. 

You're expected to know everything there is to know about operating systems, your clients, their business, your business, whom to contact, where to start troubleshooting, and exactly which commands to execute at a particular moment to make the "magic" happen. You have to do it all with a smile on your face. And tomorrow, when everything is cool again, you have to listen to the guy in the next cubicle making twice your salary talk to his wife, talk to his kids, talk to his kid's teachers, take care of all of his personal issues, and then he asks you why you're leaving at 6pm, when he's just getting started for the day.

No wonder younger people aren't flocking to IT anymore.

Add offshoring and staff reductions to the mix and you've just created the perfect career storm.

In ten years, IT will be much like teaching: only the truly dedicated and the truly inept will remain for the long term. It's unfortunate, but true.

So, after having a few days to think about the possibilities, I've come up with ten ideas to help cope with IT burnout, the dead-end career blues, and the fact that your friend's jobs have been offshored.

  • Start a band. Well, it doesn't have to be a band, but start a project with some of your favorite coworkers that allows you to be creative, to blow off steam, or to just be mindless for a little while (D&D anyone?). And who knows where your little ventures might lead. Make short films, have LAN parties, start a Meetup, do some performance art, or hit some clubs together.
  • Suggest a BYOD program. As silly as it might sound, your personal tech is probably superior to your company's bargain basement, but well negotiated contract gadgetry. Help draft the policies, evaluate some MDM, MAM, or MCM suites to show that you're going the extra mile and are serious about the program.
  • Write up your job description. Seriously, you and your coworkers should write up your job descriptions. It's the first thing I do when I go into a new position, even within the same company. I get everyone in my group to do it too. If nothing else, it provides your leadership with a "group resume". Hopefully you have friends in your group who are at all different technical levels so that you see some diversity in the descriptions. Once completed, post the descriptions on a SharePoint or other Wiki site so that they can be shared, edited, and used.
  • Keep track of your accomplishments. Tracking your accomplishments seems a silly task, but if you do it over the course of a few months, you'll see how much you're contributing to the organization and so will your boss. Write down anything and everything, no matter how small or insignificant. Write down that you created a SharePoint site for the group and added your job descriptions to it. This is a living document. Post to it at least twice a week.
  • Set goals and have a plan. Yes, I know how that sounds, but any good financial advisor will tell you that without a plan and goals, you'll never "get ahead" of your bills and be able to save for that rainy day you've always heard about. The same goes for your career. Set training goals. Set milestones. Set career goals. If your company doesn't require this kind of activity, start it and don't forget to save it to your SharePoint site and to mark it in your list of accomplishments.
  • Solve a nagging problem. Every company has them and often the nagging problems are the ones that everyone recognizes, but go unsolved. For example, if you're passing around spreadsheets to create a report for a client, ditch that spreadsheet and put that information into a database and create a web front end for it. It's easier than you think and solving a problem, especially a nagging one, is...you guessed it, a major accomplishment.
  • Ask your manager for a performance review. Even if your company doesn't have regular reviews, ask for one—in fact, you should demand it. Take a printed list of your accomplishments with you. Be prepared to highlight the ones that benefitted the company most. 
  • Save some money. Companies are always looking at ways to cut costs. Find one, present it, or act on it without prompting or presentation. Don't be afraid to toot your own horn. Add it to your accomplishments.
  • Begin an internal training program. Peer training is extremely valuable. It's worth more than any ten courses you've ever taken. The more skills you know, the more valuable you are to yourself, to your company, and to potential employers. You should also share your knowledge with others. Being able to mentor and train others elevates you in your organization.
  • Discuss your challenges and goals. There's no better way to get attention than to share your goals with others. You should also share your challenges. For example, if you want to be a senior level tech or position yourself as a manager, ask how to go about it. Often technical people go unnoticed because they don't speak up about their goals. If no one knows you want to be a manager, management assumes that you don't want to be one.

And here's a single Don't for you: Don't sit around and bemoan your station in life, your lack of notice, or your current situation. Trust me, no one wants to hear it. Instead, follow those ten suggestions and see if things improve for you and your career. If they don't, then it's clearly time to get a new job where you can thrive in your career.

I guess my coworkers will be careful what they talk about at lunch from now on or it might end up as a post on ZDNet. Winks.

*I'm a Technical Consultant III, as I've been for years, and I don't expect that to change anytime soon.

Editorial standards