For the past several years, most IT professionals could be excused for thinking more about keeping the jobs they had than finding better ones. As the dot coms imploded and recession loomed, a career in technology went from being a sure bet to a chancy proposition. "It's a tough market out there for everyone, but especially IT," says Seth Peterson, a systems integration consultant for Langtech, an IT outsourcer based in San Francisco. "You may have to send out 200 resumes before you get a bite."
But even the best swimmers can't tread water forever, and the same holds true when it comes to career advancement in the technology world. Moving up the career ladder may be more difficult in tough economic times, but it can -- and should be done. The question is, how?
"Once you're in a company, you can't stop your job search," says Kathryn Ullrich, president of the Professional Area Network for Women in Technology and owner of a high-tech executive recruitment business. In other words, getting ahead means keeping a long-term career advancement plan in place.
The first thing to do is excel at your current job, but Ullrich and others recommend a number of other strategies to get noticed by those who hand out the promotions:
TOOT YOUR OWN HORN. As you tot up career successes, you have to document them in terms that business people can understand. "I talk to recruiters every day who say they hate the IT resumes," says Kevin Donlin, president of Guaranteed Resumes in Edina, Minn. "The reason is that IT people are very task oriented, and as a result they short themselves on the results."
So, instead of saying you've cleaned up an Access database, couch your achievement in a business context. Did the database fix save a relationship with an important client? Write it down. Did it help streamline customer service? Quantify how much. "That's the kind of context people are looking for," says Donlin.
Next, let the right people know. Ullrich recommends sending out a congratulatory message to a project team after the successful conclusion of a project, cc'ing the CIO or IT manager as well as the business sponsor. "A lot of times they don't realize all the people who were involved in a project," she says.
FOLLOW YOUR INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY. It's a Catch 22 -- you can't advance into the managerial ranks until you have management skills, and you can't get those skills until you have a managerial job. Dave Carpe, a career coach and principal at HR consultancy Clew LLC in Lexington, Mass., recommends using many of the volunteer technical groups that exist to gain some of that experience. "If you're a sys admin, it's going to be difficult to moonlight for a consulting company, but there's nothing to stop you from volunteering at your local Church or Synagogue, or take part in something larger where you can lead and influence large groups of people," he says.
For example, there are many open source groups working on myriad technical projects, or there are groups like the Internet Engineering Task Force (www.ietf.org), an international community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers that convenes countless working groups to help build next-generation Internet architecture.
"Organizing volunteers is amazing," says Carpe. "You really can develop managerial and leadership skills."
GET THE SOFT SKILLS. "The ability to communicate both written and orally is many times just as important, if not more so, than IT skills," says David Willmer, regional manager at Robert Half International. "It's particularly relevant to IT managers, because IT and business unit managers are interacting more than ever and will continue to do so."
He recommends a number of ways to acquire such skills: Find a mentor within the technology group who excels in those skills for example, or sign up for some formal training, such as advanced degree programs.
KNOW YOUR CUSTOMERS AND THEIR BUSINESS GOALS. The bottom line of any company is reaching its business goals, so smart IT folks will make sure that they are conversant with them, as well as familiar with the business customers they serve. "IT professionals are often unknown and are only called upon when problems occur," says Ullrich. "The most important thing is to make sure people know who you are so you are seen as a colleague that can offer an array of value to the company."
TRAIN TO MEET YOUR COMPANY'S LONG-RANGE TECH PLAN. The fact is, technology is not a static field, and a career in IT means constant learning. In order to pick the right skills, Ed Denzler, CEO of The Training Camp, in Philadelphia, recommends that technology employees synch their skills acquisition to their employers' long-term goals. "Keep your ear on the rail," he recommends. "If you see a bunch of Linux servers coming in, you can figure it out. Security is another no-brainer. Being in the right place at the right time means having the skills to do the job. And that means planning ahead."
Langtech's Peterson says that technology certifications are a great way to gain credibility in a certain discipline. "They give you a great skill set," says Peterson, who is currently getting his MCSE (Microsoft Certification Systems Engineer) certification. "It helps you see the all the things behind the scenes that we deal with everyday -- not to mention that it's a good resume builder."