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Tips to Avoid IT Mid-career Slump by ITJobCafe Home page for IT Professionals

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Tips to Avoid IT Mid-career Slump by
Article Posted: 09/12/2013
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Tips to Avoid IT Mid-career Slump

(Courtesy: Kevin Casey,Informationweek)

D on't let yourself be cast as the IT pro who's stuck, grumpy or complacent. Consider these midcareer moves.

Smart Moves For The Long Haul "Middle management" tends to get a bad rap in the business world, conjuring images of inefficient paper pushers stagnating in their windowless offices. The movie Office Space might come to mind.

But the middle tiers of healthy organizations are crucial, according to engineer-turned-HR recruiter Steven Levy, who likens middle managers to the glue of an organization. "You can't have top and bottom without the middle," Levy said. "It's like having a body with legs, arms and head and nothing in the middle to hold it together. It just doesn't make sense."

"Middle" is also a critical time in a career. It's the connective tissue between where you started as an IT greenhorn and where you want to end up. So whether you dream of the CIO seat or will be perfectly happy and successful on a lower rung of the corporate ladder, it's an important time to make smart decisions while avoiding complacency or burnout.

With that in mind, Levy in an interview shared his ideas and advice for IT pros in the thick of their careers. He noted that most IT roles begin with an operational component: running a network, building an internal system, managing a move to the cloud. As IT pros continue to progress along their career paths and especially as they move into middle and upper management roles, they're increasingly called upon to take on people management and financial and data responsibilities. The last is a relatively new phenomenon, which encompasses the willingness and ability to make data-driven decisions.

"When someone wants to move up and become more of a leader, those are the skill categories they have to develop," Levy said. If you're in the midst of your career, it can pay off, monetarily and otherwise, to think about what choices you can make now that will best serve you and your employer(s) the rest of the way and how those choices relate to those operational, people, financial and data categories.

Although financial and data responsibilities require a certain degree of comfort with numbers, Levy points out that many of the best moves you can make for your career boil down to learning how to converse with other human beings. That doesn't necessarily mean you must have a gift of gab, but you'll need strong communication skills and an ease with having or at least a willingness to have challenging conversations with bosses, peers and subordinates.

Ditto speaking in front of an audience or dealing with a vendor that isn't pulling its weight. "At some point in your career, you have to be able to talk to people," Levy said. It can be scary; you'll need to find a way to get past that fear. "The alternative is to have control taken away from you," he warned.

Note that communication shouldn't be confused with shouting. You don't have to be the loudest voice in every meeting or a cut-throat profiteer to succeed; you just need to be smart, self-aware and strategic.

"Squeaky wheels get grease, but squeaky wheels aren't terribly effective or efficient," Levy said. "Ultimately, I want someone who's going to be factual and honest. Being honest, straightforward, never judgmental and always being available to explain the reasoning behind things those are the people who make really good leaders."

Read on for nine moves midcareer IT pros should consider.

Become An Expert Moving up the corporate chain of command requires increasing levels of proficiency in one or more key areas. Although versatility can be a valuable asset, don't let it take the place of expertise. For IT pros, that expertise will often be in areas where nontechnical executives are less comfortable, such as cloud, virtualization, security and so on. Employees with indispensable know-how become go-to people in their organizations. "People who are selected to move up are subject-matter experts on something," Levy said. "They're not just OK at things."

Get Involved Outside Your Company Outside involvement makes you more recruitable, according to Levy. "You have to be involved with the [IT] community outside your company," he said.

This could take the form of user groups Levy noted that they exist for most major vendors and technologies. It could also mean joining professional and industry associations, attending meet-ups and conferences, and so on. Doing so will help on the learning and expertise front. It can also foster better networking, improve public speaking and presentation skills. ("Most techies aren't good speakers," Levy said.) And it can build the sorts of relationships and résumé fodder that enhance your chances of reaching the highest levels of an organization.

"Most don't do that," Levy said. "They do their jobs and go home. They say they don't have time."

Learn To Negotiate Moving up typically requires negotiation skills, whether you're hammering out a vendor contract, getting the salary you deserve, or simply getting other stakeholders to buy into your vision and decisions. Levy pointed out that getting involved with external communities can be a great way to develop this skill.

"As you move up, you're giving presentations, you're negotiating, you're trying to convince people that your point is valid and that it will positively impact the performance of the company," Levy explained.

Make Friends With The CFO Learning necessary finance skills and responsibilities can be a daunting task as you move up the ladder, particularly if math isn't your thing. Don't let it intimidate you. Levy suggests, quite literally, befriending your company's CFO or someone else in the finance function and asking for help in learning the ins and outs of profit-and-loss responsibility, return on investment calculations, cost-benefit analysis and so on. Ask the finance team to hold a lunchtime class on how to read financial statements, for example. At minimum, Levy recommends reading Corporate Finance for Dummies (Michael Taillard, For Dummies, 2012).

"I think everyone in IT has to become friends with the CFO," Levy said.

Find A Mentor Whether you want to reach the highest echelons of the company or are perfectly happy in your current role, Levy stressed the importance of identifying an internal mentor to help offer counsel on difficult career decisions and related matters. That person should have, among other attributes, a clear view and understanding of internal and external corporate politics, which will help you sidestep potential pitfalls when making important choices.

"You have to be able to confide in someone," Levy said, adding that the best confidant is not HR.

Learn To Have Difficult Conversations Here's an area where a trusted mentor can help. Regardless of your goals, Levy said midcareer IT pros must learn to have difficult conversations. That's true if you want to manage a growing number of people, for instance. People pose all sorts of thorny management challenges, and you'll need to be comfortable talking through them and negotiating positive outcomes. Learning to better communicate with a live human being, not just over IM or on a social site is also critical if you are already in the position you wanted all along.

It can be uncomfortable, for instance, to say, "I don't want a promotion," but you'll need to be able to communicate your desires in a constructive manner. "At some point, you [might] have to go to somebody and say, 'I'm happy where I am now, I want to stay here, [but] that doesn't mean I want to become complacent in my performance,'" Levy said, adding that if your employer perceives that as weakness, that means you're working for the wrong employer. "You need to still have a performance discussion with somebody who can, for lack of a better role, protect your role."

One way to improve your speaking and communication skills: practice. Hold mock business conversations with family or friends that deal in awkward or problematic subjects.

Don't Become The Grumpy IT Pro No matter your goals, no matter how many jerks and other petulant personalities you must deal with in your day-to-day job, no matter what - don't become the grumpy IT pro. It's not going to help solve problems or boost your job satisfaction. Avoiding this pitfall requires self-awareness and introspection, according to Levy: "Do you think someone who has become [the office grouch] knows that they're that person?" (The answer: Probably not.)

Listen to people whose opinion you value, whether personally or professionally, and pay attention if they tell you that you look and sound miserable. And if you're already that person, take small, measured steps to fix the underlying issues.

"Changing bad behavior takes time," Levy said.

Position Yourself For Success Levy pointed to three "P's" of promotion decisions: performance, politics and perception. Note that only one of these is 100% under your control, but that doesn't mean you can't influence all three. "People need to take all these into account when they manage [their] career," Levy said. Look for opportunities to participate in a positive manner both internally and externally, rather than lurk. "Lurkers don't get promoted," Levy said.

"Become a helper." An example: If you're a manager who's been with your company for a while, ask HR if you can assist with the new-hire onboarding process. "Help newbies to the organization navigate and understand the career decisions you made, and how they can get to where you are," Levy said. "Become a mentor. Become a player-coach."

Seek Greener Pastures If you're happy with your current employer, you'll look for every opportunity to move up internally or ensure the long-term stability of a role you're already satisfied with. But lifetime tenure with the same company, for better or worse, is decreasingly common. IT pros with executive ambitions might ultimately find that the greenest pastures are with another organization.

"Sometimes the best career decision is to leave the company," Levy said. This gets back to square one: getting involved outside your company, which will increase your visibility with recruiters and potential employers. "No company can provide a consistently innovative, creative environment," Levy added. "It's the pyramid: As you move up, there are only so many places you can go internally."



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