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How to take control of your own IT career

December 17, 2012 06:00 AM ET

"You can't think too far out. It's more important to be flexible enough in the three-to-five-year time frame," he advises. "Don't say, '20 years from now, I want to be a CIO,' because then, that's all you're looking for." It's more important to be open to a wide range of roles that could broaden your knowledge and help you acquire experience that will serve you well over the long term, he says.

In his own career, Clementson moved from a software developer role at Arco Alaska to the company's service center, which in turn "opened doors into the infrastructure realm," he says. He ended up leading a Mac-to-PC migration project. After that, he went back to software development for a while, and then moved into the healthcare industry. There, his experience with the Arco migration project helped him land a leadership role on an electronic medical record project, and that led to his current role as director of delivery for infrastructure.

"It's all about looking at what's available and adjusting things and stretching yourself," he says. "You have to be comfortable and willing to move into the opportunities that are out there."

Olsovsky says 18 months to two years is a good benchmark. By then, you understand the role and it's time to make the next move, she says.

"But you have to be thoughtful about your progression," she warns. "If you're an applications developer in marketing systems and you know marketing systems, that's great. But if the boss has an opening in operations systems, that's a better choice because [you'll] get an operations background, which will make you even more valuable for the next progression. You have to keep your eyes open for side-to-side moves that move you ahead."

Career Strategy

Stay on the Cutting Edge or Get Out

As a veteran IT professional, Simon Knox knows all about the value of staying ahead of technology changes.

Twenty years ago, Knox, then a 35-year-old mainframe programmer, saw "fewer and fewer jobs available in mainframe technology, plus everyone was looking at outsourcing," he recalls. "It would have been easy to find a job in distributed technologies like Unix or Windows, but I had none of that background."

To stay marketable, "I had to make some very tough choices," Knox says. The first was to completely re-educate himself in newer technologies.

"The tools are readily available to anyone. You can go to the library or Barnes & Noble and borrow or buy a book," Knox says. He also enrolled in an 18-month technology training program, which he paid for himself. But even then, he had no functional, hands-on experience.

"And since I had a high salary in my mainframe days, companies did not believe that I would take a lesser job with a big pay cut and stay with it," he says. "For almost 22 months when I was looking [for a new position], no one would believe a person would take $60,000 when they were making $100,000."

Ultimately, Knox gained the required experience by working as a consultant for several months. He then landed a full-time job with CIT Group, where he is a senior infrastructure analyst.

"Anybody who has been in this business as long as I have should know they have to take control of their own career if they plan on staying in," he says.

"The company you work for gives you a job, and once you become proficient in that job, they will have you in it for the rest of your life because they need you there," Knox says.

As mainframe technologists, "many of us got so far behind that it was impossible to catch up. Many of my friends and colleagues left IT and took other jobs 10 to 15 years ago," he notes. "One of the worst things about companies is they find technologies that work and they don't change [the technology] until they have to. And then it's a mad scramble to get things done, so they bring in people from the outside with experience and the inside people get let go because they do not have the skills."

Learning from this experience and recognizing that business and technology are growing increasingly integrated, Knox has continued his education, earning a bachelor's degree in business administration earlier this year.

"In technology," he says, "you have to stay on the cutting edge or you'll be cut out."

Julia King

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