Careers Special Report 2016

IT careers: How to put your career on the fast track

Many IT professionals say they would go all-out to land the best jobs, with the best benefits at the best companies. All it takes is up-to-the-minute skills and a whole lot of drive.

Kevin Kalahiki moved up fast after landing his first IT job during the boom days of the dot-com era.

He jumped from entry-level Web developer in 2000 to senior manager on a digital design team at a large financial services firm today, with just a few stops in between.

"I had this drive to keep learning and to push myself; to not relax, because the technology doesn't. And because of that, I've found myself naturally coming up to lead," Kalahiki says.

Kalahiki's climb may not have been meteoric, but he doesn't have a college degree and his résumé before he moved into IT consisted of a few dead-end jobs. So what accounts for his fast ride up?

Kalahiki credits personal initiative.

"I had always been passionate about IT, so when I fell into having a real job, I got immersed in how it all works," he says. "And I think that initiative, that [desire] to always learn and to understand how things work that's in myself and other people I work with, that's the one thing that can fast-track a career."

The news is filled with statistics and stories about the strong tech labor market. Indeed, the unemployment rate for tech workers is lower than 4%, and it's lower than 1% for certain jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jobs are numerous, and opportunities are plentiful. But that great employment environment doesn't guarantee advancement, much less a fast ascent to a top position.

[ Further reading: The hidden pitfalls of going freelance in IT ]

Ambition and drive still pay off

Rank-and-file IT employees, IT managers and tech recruiters acknowledge that, yes, there are lots of job openings, but they also quickly note that not all positions are created equal. Some jobs at certain companies offer more challenges, prestige and pay than others. Similarly, some positions are better than others when it comes to serving as stepping-stones to more exciting, higher paying roles. And some extracurricular pursuits and individual attributes — like Kalahiki's drive — are more likely than others to lead to enriching careers.

But the bottom line is that ambitious IT professionals have opportunities to craft a fast track to the top — though they must chart and navigate their paths themselves, figuring out which course is the best for (quickly) achieving their goals.

"They may want to move toward management, others might want to be known as strong technically by their peers. There's more than one track, and depending on the path you chose, there are different ways to fast-track to that point," says Doug Schade, a partner in the software technology practice at recruitment firm WinterWyman.

Whether advancing technically or up the management ranks, getting ahead is definitely on the minds of many in IT.

In a September 2015 Computerworld survey of 244 IT professionals, 59% of the respondents said it's very important or important to work at a company that's considered "digitally cool" — one that's growing and innovating with technology.

A high number of the respondents also said they'd be willing to put their noses to the grindstone to get ahead, at least temporarily: 67% said they would sacrifice work/life balance and agree to long hours and high stress for at least a year for significant monetary gain. Another 36% said they'd take those long hours and the high stress for an opportunity to work with cutting-edge technologies and/or industry leaders, while another 34% would do so for a significant jump in job title and responsibilities.

Computerworld Careers 2016 factoid: sacrificing work life balance Computerworld

(On the other hand, only 18% said they would trade work/life balance for great perks, such as company-provided meals or an on-site gym, while just 16% said they'd make sacrifices to get in on the ground floor of a startup; and only 14% would do it for an opportunity to work for a prestigious company.)

Schade and others, though, say getting ahead isn't just about working long hours or getting a job at the hottest company. Even in this high-tech era, old-fashioned commitment and dedication still stand out — as long as they're paired with a drive to add new skills and knowledge.

"The tried-and-true methods of working hard over the course of many years will bring success: There is still a lot to that. But it has to be coupled with working smarter and looking to improve. You can have someone working hard, but they're not excelling because they're not keeping up with tech trends, working with mentors to get ahead, or teaching themselves skills they don't have," Schade says.

Always learning

Roger Bezona, a consulting programmer/analyst who's working for CSX Transportation on a contract basis, says he progressed quickly in the early days of his career after an on-the-job course in programming put him into the IT sphere 40-plus years ago.

"The technical programming fit my personality. It was like, 'Wow, I get to do this, and they pay me, too,'" he says.

Because he felt that way, Bezona says he knew moving into management wasn't right for him. So he focused on improving technically. He kept up with ever-evolving programming trends, so whenever he got bored at one job he could move into another. He says he then switched to consulting "where I could make more and jump around without HR seeing it as a negative." His strategy brought him work in two countries (Australia and the U.S.), 13 states and 12 different companies before he started with CSX 18 years ago.

Like Kalahiki, Bezona credits his personal drive to keep learning for his ability to get ahead.

"I see young people come in and say things like, 'I only program in Java.' But you can't do that. This is just what's here for today. You have to keep learning. Every chance I got, I learned something new. I never got the mindset that this is the only thing I'm going to do. Always advance yourself," Bezona says.

And, he adds, work hard.

"People think that managers don't appreciate it, but I have found one thing: They notice if you get it done quickly and correctly. If you make mistakes, you fix them yourself. And if you have to get something done, take the initiative and get it done. Don't just sit there waiting for the answer to fall out of the sky," he says.

Others agree that a strong work ethic, along with a willingness to take responsibility for results and being a self-starter, can definitely vault one person ahead of those who don't demonstrate such attributes. And although many tell tales of colleagues who lacked those characteristics yet still got ahead, IT leaders and recruiters downplay such stories, stressing that they simply don't fast-track people who aren't driven to work hard and deliver results.

Experimenting and learning, on the side

Still, there are other ways to speed up your career progress, particularly if you've already displayed those traits, says Blake Angove, director of technology services for recruiting and staffing firm LaSalle Network.

Blake Angove, director of technology services, LaSalle Network LaSalle Network

Blake Angove, LaSalle Network

Angove says employers want IT staffers who are passionate about technology and are not only keeping up the skills they need for their existing jobs but are playing around on the cutting edge, too. They want software developers who contribute to sites like Stack Overflow and initiatives like GitHub to build reputations as contributors and thought leaders. They want DevOps, network and systems engineers who experiment with the latest technologies at home or in enterprise skunk works projects.

"Not every company is going to be able to offer the latest and greatest technologies, so they look for people who will push themselves to work with those technologies outside the workplace — so when the budget becomes available, they know they have the right people to help them implement the technology," he says.

However, it's not just knowing the technology that will move your career forward, Angove adds. It's being able to sell it. It's being the one pushing to implement a new technology to bring real business value.

[ Further reading: Resume makeover: How to emphasize your 'X factor' ]

"Consistently making recommendations for improvements within your company, presenting a case for why you should move to a new platform, being able to explain the 'why' behind what you're doing, that's what will set you apart from the heads-down engineers," Angove says, adding that passionate self-starters are the ones who get tapped to lead the cool projects when companies make a leap, getting a chance to take a few big steps forward all at once — particularly along the management track.

Mark Stevenson, director of technology services at JM Family Enterprises, says he has experienced that firsthand.

"The closer I was to the business function, to have the ability to recognize requirements and business needs and translate those to technology — those made my path move much quicker," he says, explaining that he managed projects but still "got my hands dirty around development and architecture and application and process work and I could align it with the business needs."

Show promise, get perks

Some companies cater to the needs of high-potential workers.

Gunjan Aggarwal, vice president of HR and global head of talent acquisition at Ericsson, says the Swedish telecommunications company has a nonhierarchical culture that allows employees to move from job to job and discipline to discipline.

The company not only allows employees to pursue fluid career paths, but it also offers a formal program to help workers move ahead — and move ahead swiftly. Launched two years ago, Ericsson's Career Challenge 100 initiative gives employees 100 days to explore a new position within the organization. The program also includes training, mentoring and other skills-development services to give participants a solid base of skills to take to their desired new positions.

"We call it a challenge because we want employees to know it's not easy. It's important, but not easy," Aggarwal says.

She notes that the program coupled with the support provided to those who undertake the challenge helps high achievers move ahead in their careers — and do so within Ericsson.

"We want them to be successful so that they stay here rather than move to another company," she says.

Another company that nurtures rising stars, American Express, offers up-and-comers a plethora of opportunities to grow, says Yvonne Schneider, senior vice president and unit CIO for Global Corporate Systems Technology at the financial services company. She explains that employees can work across multiple lines of business — consumer, small business, corporate — while remaining focused on technology, from mobile systems to websites to back-office functions.

One advantage of working at American Express is that it's a global company, so people "have opportunities to travel and to actually work in different cultures," Schneider says. "I find that something that a lot of the younger generation is looking for is that ability to experience new and exciting cultures." (Hear more of Schneider's thoughts in this video, which is also featured above.)

Add skills, not a marquee name, to your résumé

Working at a large company with a marquee name isn't the only way to get ahead, though.

As Schade says: "There's certainly a lot to be said about working in a well-known company. It says that you've worked in great projects, using great technology. But it's not only about the name. It's the substance of what you've done there."

Stevenson and others say there are lots of ways to get that kind of experience. Your options include working at a technology company that's doing innovative work or developing new hardware or software; landing a job in an IT department at a company that's implementing the latest and greatest technologies to drive digital transformation; taking a position at a large organization that makes room for technologists to develop in-depth expertise in a particular area; joining a small company where each individual has opportunities to lead transformative technology implementations; or becoming a consultant to gain experience in numerous environments.

"When a résumé hits my desk, I'm not looking at company names. I'm looking for what kind of work they did for the company," says Jack Sunderman, CTO at Medac and KAM Technologies.

Sunderman says the candidates who really stand out, the ones who get ahead faster than their contemporaries, are still those who seek out challenges, who continually gain new skills, and who pitch ideas that could benefit their companies.

Jack Sunderman, CTO, Medac and KAM Technologies

Jack Sunderman, Medac Inc.

He also recommends that those who want to fast-track their careers work in regions with concentrations of companies so they can easily take better positions without having to relocate.

Be prepared to work hard — not just on the job, but while you're hunting for a job, too. Competition is stiff: Google, for instance, reportedly gets 2 million applicants per year and hires about 5,000.

The hard work it takes to land a résumé-enhancing job, and then do it well, can pay off in the long run. Hiring managers and recruiters say that those kinds of experiences definitely get you noticed.

But there is a caveat: Schade and others say while certain jobs can make your résumé stand out, they don't guarantee a big career boost — or even a new job or a promotion.

Stevenson agrees that no single position, employer, skill or achievement will catapult you into a top-notch position if you can't demonstrate that you consistently deliver and show that you have other essential attributes, such as the ability to communicate well and a willingness to work with others. As he says: "I look at their overall experience."

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