Tip

Annual IT career checkups help you control your future

Humans are fascinated with time. We love birthdays, anniversaries and regular holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. We also recognize the value of annual physicals at the doctor's office, and that annual performance reviews are a fact of working life. To a large extent, these types of events punctuate our lives.

Far too many IT professionals, however, don't do the same for their own personal IT career development and planning. That's a shame, because annual self-assessment and career planning would help them set a course for their professional lives. They could then track their progress, adjust their courses and respond to changing circumstances with forethought and deliberation.

Therefore, let's explore how an annual career checkup might work. To begin with, it's hard to assess progress and capabilities without a set of goals. Those who tackle this process for the first time must develop a set of goals and objectives. Individuals who continue this process can compare last year's accomplishments to their corresponding goals and objectives to assess progress before they develop a new set for the year ahead.

It's typical for aspiring IT professionals to establish goals in multiple categories when planning their IT careers. Thus, most people tend to develop goals and objectives across some or all of these areas:

  • Income: Generally, people want their salary increases to do better than just matching boosts in inflation or the cost of living, which have averaged

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  • a low 2.5% or less for years. With interest rates on the way up, and inflation and living costs following behind, numbers in the 4% to 8% range are probably more realistic going forward.
  • Education: Government and private industry long-term earnings studies both confirm that educational advancement makes the biggest single impact on lifetime earnings. Those who don't have a degree should consider a two-year or associate's degree to get started on this path, and those who have degrees should weigh the pros and cons of pursuing another. The value of advanced degrees varies (relatively speaking, a master's is worth about the same as a bachelor's when compared to a high school diploma; and a Ph.D. is relatively more by the same measure). The earnings impact of any degree is high: about 70% for an associate's, 150% for a bachelor's, 300% for a master's, and a whopping 480% for a Ph.D., where a high school diploma is the point of reference.
  • IT certification: Though earning IT certifications at entry, intermediate or advanced levels is no guarantee of better positions or higher earnings, studies show a sustained and positive correlation between professional certifications attained and earnings achieved. The important thing is to pick growing technologies and programs that lead the pack in their market niches. Certifications tend to come in two flavors: vendor-neutral credentials address fundamentals and standard technologies, skills and best practices; and vendor-specific credentials address specific platforms, tools and technologies. Savvy IT professionals acquire a mix of both and keep them current (you should renew or replace an "average IT certification" every two to four years).
  • Professional development: Keep up with what's happening in your fieldthrough joining and attending local professional society chapters and/or annual national meetings or conventions. Some documented effort to stay abreast of your chosen specialties can provide information for future planning, and it offers valuable opportunities for learning, networking and exposure to national job markets.
  • Soft skills development: This one's often overlooked. It means learning how to be a better manager and communicator (oral and written) and improving your people skills, often within complex bureaucratic or reporting systems. As individuals advance within their fields, in fact, soft skills become as important as hard technical skills and knowledge.

When setting goals or establishing objectives, it's important to possess a desire for improvement and development with a realistic idea of what you can actually accomplish in one year. Most items on such lists must be accomplished above and beyond regular work activities -- in addition to other demands on your time outside of work. Be as honest as you can about how much time, money and effort you can devote to career development, and you'll have a much better sense of what you can accomplish from one year to the next.

It's also important to understand that even though most planning and assessment focuses on years immediately past and ahead, you should take a longer-term view of progress in some or all of these categories as well. A broader time horizon simply stretches the view ahead, and while it makes goals and objectives a bit more uncertain and more likely to change, it does help provide some valuable long-term continuity in stringing sets of plans together year after year.

Ed Tittel is a freelance writer who specializes in information security, IT certification and markup languages. He created the Exam Cram series, has contributed to more than 130 computer books and writes regularly for numerous TechTarget Web sites. Email Tittel at etittel@techtarget.com.

This was first published in June 2006

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