Progressing a Career in IT
Recently I have been asked by a couple of people for some advice on progressing a career in IT in particular how they can get out of a rut and improve their skills enough to move up. I’ve not been in IT a huge amount of time myself but so far I have managed not to get stuck in a role for too long and have always progressed regular as clockwork to the next rung of the IT career ladder. More luck than judgement I suspect but I have learned a few things along the way that might be of benefit to others wandering about progressing a career in IT.
1. Define Your Career Path
We are fortunate in IT that there are some pretty well defined career paths, if you know where you want to end up it’s often very clear what position you have to work towards next. My first piece of advice is this, think about where you want to end up and look at what positions you need to work up through to get there. Don’t just wait around for any old promotion to come along, work hard towards the specific job you want next. Personally I have always progressed along the technical career path, I haven’t left the technical side behind so I will focus on technical career progression for this post.
Be careful when thinking about your career path, there needs to be a balance between personal and work life. You should think about what balance will be comfortable for you, many roles involve travel and staying away from home and that’s not for everyone. Set your sites based on lifestyle as well as the financial, insert cliche about money not buying happiness.
Beware the offer of promotion if it deviates from your desired career path. Increased money is a huge temptation but if you go too far down say a management path but you wanted to progress a technical path you may find it hard to get back on course later.
2. Where are you working
I was lucky that very early in my IT career I went to work for a managed services provider (MSP) providing outsourced IT support and err…managed services. At the time I didn’t even know what an MSP was but it turned out to be a good move for me. I got massive exposure to a broad range of IT technology that would never have happened had I stayed where I was working in house IT.
So my second piece of advice is this, look at where you are working. How big is the company? How big is the IT department? How varied are the IT systems? Are the systems current and industry standard?
If your current place of employment is too small you will get very limited exposure to technologies and limited opportunities to move up. If the systems are antiquated or not very industry typical the experience you gain may be of little value elsewhere. If this is true of where you are working you should bite the bullet now and dust off the CV. The next employer doesn’t have to be the last one and probably won’t be but make sure the experience you’re gaining is sending you in the right direction. MSP’s can be a good choice as they will often offer formal training and certifications as they need to maintain competencies for Microsoft and other vendor partnerships.
3. Identify what skills you need and work on them
By now hopefully you have your career path firmly visualised and you’ve positioned yourself with an employer who can help you get there. Now you can focus on your skills.
Do some research and figure out what each step on your chosen career path requires from you. Appraise your own skills honestly and see where the shortfall is and make a list of the things you need to learn.
If you got step two right your day-to-day responsibilities should see you gaining valuable experience and learning new things. However, everyone hits a plateau in their learning at some point where the job just isn’t throwing anything new at you. Sometimes this plateau is going to leave you short of the skills and confidence you need to step up. This is where you need to take some responsibility for your own learning and do some self training, you cannot rely solely on employer provided training if you’re going to get anywhere fast.
I can’t stress this enough setup up a home lab and start installing and configuring things, there are a huge number of guides and articles on the internet to help you install and administer just about anything. Have a play, break it and fix it again until you can throw away the guide. It is important that you find the time for this, make your home lab your hobby, it’s much easier if you enjoy it. “I don’t have time” is an excuse I have heard from way too many people who have spent years stagnating in low level support roles, in the next breath they are telling me about their marathon gaming session or their binge watch of some TV show. If you are worried about the expense of setting up a home lab fear not, it need not be prohibitively expensive and it’s never been easier. I will be following this up with an article on that very subject.
I would also caution here that focusing too heavily on book learning for certifications and not on hands on experience and real world application can be a mistake. You should try to maintain certifications but ensure you can actually apply the skills the qualification suggests you posses. I can promise you that most employers will be far more interested in experience, unfortunately certifications have been devalued by the amount of brain dump sites out there and even boot camp style training is highly questionable. An MCSE to your name won’t exempt you from the technical questions in an interview or getting the boot during probation.
4. I have the skills what do I do to move up
Keep assessing your skills as they grow and don’t be over critical of yourself, many people put off going for a promotion because they lack confidence, I know I have. Sure you shouldn’t bite off more than you can chew but at some point you have to take the plunge and go for it. Even if you do find yourself slightly out of your depth to start with your on-the-job learning will be back to the satisfying pace it was when you started the last role you outgrew. Before you know it you will be more than up to speed and thinking about the next promotion. If you are getting step two and three right you should be looking to move up service desk roles every 12-18 months quite comfortably.
If you are anything like me then you won’t be wanting to spend any longer on the service desk than necessary, for others though they are happiest in a support role but I think most would like to reach 3rd line (or whatever the highest tier is where you are). Moving out of a support role and into consultancy can be a particularly daunting step up but if you’ve been working hard on step three you may actually find consultancy easier than 3rd line support, you will look back and wander what all the fuss was about.
So you worked hard and you’ve got your skills to the place they need to be for a promotion? Make sure your boss knows it, don’t be shy about your extra curricular learning and make sure they know you want to move up. If it comes to it be brave and ask for a promotion outright, if you are turned down ask why, they may feel you aren’t ready and you can work on that together. If there simply isn’t an opening it’s up to you if you want to wait, if staff turn over is very low though I advise not to wait around for someone to retire.
When it comes to internal promotion different employers are better than others. Some will happily promote and reward while others prefer having an over qualified person filling a role or my personal most hated, they promote but avoid reward (yes this is a thing). You need to recognise which you work for, loyalty swings both ways and a good employer should be looking to do right by you. If they aren’t looking after you then you owe them nothing and it’s time to revisit step two and dust off the CV again.
The important thing here is you are ready so make it happen, even if that means moving employers. Don’t hang around too long or you are delaying reaching your end goal!
5. Additional pointers
Following these steps should see you quickly progressing a career in IT through support and on to consultancy. Beyond that career direction can be somewhat murky and there are people far better positioned to proffer advice than I. Here are a few additional pointers, every little helps:
- Involve yourself in the wider IT community, start a blog and/or contribute to IT forums
- Use social networking to build contacts and get job offers, Linkedin is good for this
- Beware over specializing in something too niche or risk finding yourself suddenly obsolete
- Keep up with trends in technology and don’t be over cynical, the cloud naysayers of today may be the unemployed of tomorrow
- Aim for higher level certifications. The kind where far fewer professionals attain them so the qualification still carries weight.