There is growing long term demand for information technology services. This translates into growing career opportunities for IT professionals. However, simply “being there” isn’t enough. Just like the companies they work for, advancement minded technology consultants should have a vision of what they want their career to be, accompanied by the goals, strategies and tactics which will take them there.

Education

Education can serve as a strong foundation for advancement. There are degrees and certifications which may enhance an IT professional’s career path. Degrees in computer science and computer engineering are common amongst developers, but can also be helpful to business analysts (BA), quality assurance specialists (QAS), and project managers (PM). BAs and PMs may also benefit from degrees with a business emphasis, such as business management. There are also countless certification programs available.

Although it may be tempting to enhance a resume with as many degrees and certifications as possible, most recruiters and IT hiring managers will agree that is not an effective strategy. Instead, IT professionals should focus on the training behind the education and ask the question “will this training translate into real world experience?” As TDK Principal David Kocs explains, “The most important thing is the application of educational skills, and not just via work experience, but also through things like school internships and personal projects”. Recent analysis of IT job market trends also suggest that pay increases for professionals with IT certifications have reached their lowest point since 1999. Just keep in mind that, whether we are talking about degrees or certifications, employers want to know how knowledge and skills gained through education will be translated into on-the-job success.

Experience

There is no substitute for job experience. Career advancement possibilities improve dramatically for those with over 2 years experience in a given area. In general, the more the experience the better, as the most sought after candidates are those with 6-10 years of it. Given the nature of rapidly evolving trends in information technology, experience by the number of years doesn’t necessarily translate into career advancement. Candidates must be able to demonstrate that they’re staying abreast of emerging technologies. Ten years of experience with legacy technologies is only going to be desirable to a narrow segment of potential employers.

Experience within critical skill areas is a must. In contrast to certified skills, pay increases for critical non-certified skills recently reached their highest point since the dotcom bubble. The skills in highest demand are currently Java, .NET, Mobile, Sharepoint, business analysis, project management, quality assurance, web development, database administration and SAP. Using these critical skills in a results driven, team oriented environment is also a plus.

Breadth of experience can enhance career advancement as well. Practitioners with a specialty waning in demand may quickly find their once successful career path taking an abrupt wrong turn. Being an expert specialist can certainly be a major asset to candidates. However, those who push themselves beyond their comfort zone to acquire skills and experience that complements their specialty will improve their long term career advancement prospects. As noted in TDK’s article on Effective Software Development Teams, “specialists should not only be experts in their area of specialization, but should have at least a general understanding of the other roles and related technologies involved in the project”. Ultimately, expanding the breadth of experience makes for more effective team members, which in turn makes for more effective teams.

Soft Skills

No matter how skilled you are, without the requisite soft skills it is unlikely that your career path will be one of advancement. Among the most important IT soft skills are:

  • Communication: Written and verbal ability to effectively communicate ideas.
  • Business-Tech Liaison: A subset of communication, this is the ability to speak in the language of both business and technology.
  • Presentation Skills: Another subset of communication, the ability to present well to a group can open up the doors of advancement.
  • Team Skills: Working well with others, both leading and following well, and the ability to add value to the team.
  • Work Ethic: Possessing a strong motivation to get the job done.
  • Focus and Vision: The ability to focus on the details without losing sight of the big picture.
  • Positive Attitude: Optimistic, energetic, good willed individuals make better team members.
  • Time Management: Taking a “Getting Things Done” approach to IT work.
  • Self Confidence: Believing in your own ability and not being afraid to ask the tough questions.
  • Response to Criticism: The best learners respond well to and actively seek out criticism for self improvement.
  • Flexibility and Adaptability: The ability to be a generalist when required.
  • Handling stress: The ability to perform well under the pressure of tight deadlines.
  • Etiquette and Punctuality: Things like returning calls, being on time, table manners and saying “thanks” really do matter.

Goals

Goals, both personal and professional, should be an important part of any career advancement plan. Goals should be SMART, that is, they should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-sensitive. Personal goals can include financial, developmental, health, relationship, and other goals. Ultimately, it is these goals which drive your professional goals. Professional goals are all about knowing where you are professionally, where you want to be, and what steps you are going to take to get there. Taking the time to define and pursue professional goals obviously goes hand in hand with career advancement. Without them, you will have no clear path for advancement, and your employer may very well be content keeping you in a relatively static role. In contrast, professional goals can drive you to seek out more responsibility which may advance your career, and employers may feel compelled to delegate more responsibility to individuals with a strong track record of professional development.

Networking

For IT professionals who are intently focused on the software code, the tools, the technology stack, the project deadlines, etc., networking may seem like an afterthought at best. However, networking can become an integral part of a successful career advancement plan, the operative word here being “plan”. If networking is to become a useful part of a career advancement plan, it needs to involve more than simply going places and talking to people. You need a plan for successful networking. For example, try this 3 step plan based on TDK's article Professional Networking Through Social Media: do your homework, dive in, and keep relationships alive. For your first homework assignment, try reading the article and laying out a professional networking plan for yourself. You might just be surprised at the results.

Developing a Career Advancement Plan

Luckily for IT professionals, the IT industry provides good opportunities for career advancement, but advancement possibilities can always be enhanced by a good plan. A good plan should incorporate all the aforementioned elements.

  • Education can serve as a solid foundation and, when used as a springboard to acquire new experience, can be a viable long term advancement strategy.
  • There is no substitute for experience, especially critical skill experience in a team environment.
  • Soft skills, particularly communication skills, are a must even for the most highly skilled individuals.
  • Personal and professional goals can be a key driver and send a signal to employers that their investment in your career advancement will pay dividends back to them.
  • Having a good professional network can encourage success, whether you need a reference for your resume, a mentor for professional development, or just someone to bounce ideas off of.

In the end, IT professionals should not merely be thankful they are in an industry with career advancement opportunities. They should craft a plan to take advantage of that possibility.

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