Special Report: IT Salary Survey 2013

Tech careers: 3 ways to catch the wave

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Feeling left behind? Here's how to join the IT party in progress and be happier at work this year.

For years, Nick Brattoli had what some would consider an enviable IT job: It was steady, wide-ranging and at times, downright cushy. Working for a nonprofit mental health care organization as a Web and SharePoint specialist, Brattoli helped build the corporate intranet, trained employees and tended to traditional hardware and network support. He was reasonably paid and had ample vacation time. And the work came in fits and starts, so there was plenty of downtime.

Brattoli was content, but he didn't feel challenged. "It was a nice place to work -- I got pay raises and decent projects, but I was stuck in terms of title and responsibility," says Brattoli, 28. So after three years at the post, Brattoli embarked on a meticulous, monthslong job search to find a new position in the healthcare field that would let him spread his wings. "I'm too young to be settling. I wanted to move toward leadership, and I really like learning. My old environment wasn't conducive to that."

Read the full report: Computerworld IT Salary Survey 2013

Brattoli's search landed him a post as a SharePoint implementation engineer at Medseek, a provider of patient engagement software based in Birmingham, Ala. Although it's a comparable position, he's working on large-scale, state-of-the art projects like electronic medical records, patient portals and analytics, and there's plenty of room for growth.

Brattoli's message to other IT professionals? "If you're not happy, now is the time to work on it," Brattoli says. "It's a good time for IT."

While unemployment is still high in many fields, that's not the case in IT, according to John Reed, senior executive director at Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm. In fact, Reed says, the IT hiring picture has been pretty rosy for 24 months, driven by the explosion of new technologies, such as big data, cloud computing and mobile, and by sweeping changes in the economy, such as those brought about by healthcare reform.

"IT is really in a renaissance right now," Reed says. "For several years, IT was in a quiet period in terms of innovation. Now, IT is being viewed for its potential to revolutionize a company, and it's a cool place to be."

Like Brattoli, many of the 4,251 IT professionals who participated in the 27th annual Computerworld Salary Survey are riding that upswing, using the momentum to switch companies or change positions in their quest to find deeper career satisfaction. Here's how to join them on that journey.

Be of service to the business

Last October, Joe Scheible took a full-time job as a disaster recovery project manager at AIG after spending nearly 30 years working as an IT contractor -- at AIG and elsewhere. Scheible, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year, felt extremely loyal to AIG, which had held his contracting post open during his illness.

When AIG offered him a full-time position, he was quick to get on board. The good salary and generous benefits package were big draws, but what really sealed the deal were the chance to work with data center professionals around the globe and AIG's commitment to technology. "AIG places a huge degree of emphasis on IT and how it can be used to enhance the business," Scheible says.

In Jeff Fandl's experience, helping a business achieve its core objectives is key to long-term career happiness and success in IT. "When you start to get midlevel or senior in your career, you've got to get out from behind the desk and talk with business users," says Fandl, who in December 2012 took a job as director of IT infrastructure at Sanare, a maker of diabetes management products. "You need to understand what their pain points are and how you can enable them to solve their problems." Fandl says he previously did a stint at an IT outsourcing company, where he honed the client service and business skills that readied him for his next leap.

Refresh your skills -- again and again

Tech pros who want to take advantage of the IT upcycle need to identify any gaps in their skills and, if necessary, invest their own time and money in training to fill those gaps.

Fandl stays on top of hot IT issues and technologies by attending conferences and networking events. Jason Mathews, an IS manager at property management firm Keystone Management, attends online webinars and participates in online communities when he's off the clock. He sees learning as a continuous process. "This is one of those careers where the learning never stops or you'll be left behind," Mathews says.

Even if they aren't planning to jump ship, IT workers should look for opportunities to develop new skills within their own organizations, says Don Knepper, a veteran of more than 25 years at toy maker Tomy International. Knepper has held a host of back-end and front-end database administration roles at Tomy, and since 1997 he has been manager of information analysis -- an evolving role that allows him to pick up new skills all the time.

"We have a philosophy here of joint application development. The user community sees IT as a partner," Knepper explains. "Rather than telling us, 'This is what I need, go do the work,' they see us as providers of information and experts in how business processes work. I don't know if [a little extra money] in my paycheck would make me work any harder than getting a pat on the back from a co-worker in the business saying 'Thanks for helping me on that problem.'"

Bring passion to the project

Joseph Moreau has been vice chancellor and CTO for the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California since last June. He wasn't looking for a new opportunity before he took the job, but he says the change has proved rewarding nonetheless.

Moreau, who spent five years as CTO of the State University of New York at Oswego, says he became open to the overture from Foothill-De Anza after realizing that his leadership style and overall sensibilities were most closely aligned with the mission of a community college.

In his new post, Moreau says he plans to play a leadership role in making higher education more affordable and valuable for students, leveraging technologies like virtualization and mobile and developing new online learning capabilities and new modes of student-teacher collaboration. He says the district's location in the heart of Silicon Valley gives him access to CIOs from many industries and provides him with the opportunity to establish partnerships with nearby high-tech giants like Apple and Cisco.

Having a passion for your employer's mission is the root of job satisfaction, Moreau maintains. "The satisfaction I derive from work is about the opportunity for creativity and experimentation and working in a climate that is very receptive to that," he says. "That, more than anything else, will help you navigate the rough spots in the IT world."

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