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How to take control of your own IT career

December 17, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation

The most effective career strategy is more directional than specific. That is, it may point to an ultimate dream position, such as a directorship or executive management role, but it should also take into account the fact that, inevitably, there are multiple routes to the same destination.

"Statistically, if you look at CIOs, very few of them grow up in just the infrastructure area alone," says Cora Carmody, CIO at Jacobs Engineering Group, a $10 billion global construction and engineering services company. "We try to keep that in mind for people who are coming up in infrastructure. We want to get them cross-functional experience so they have more capability to take my job."

Early on in your career, it's all about acquiring multiple experiences, according to successful IT veterans.

"The first thing you have to do in your career is touch a lot of things. Check out a bunch of areas and see which ones spark your passion," says Jamie Hamilton, vice president of software engineering at Quicken Loans in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Quicken is a major online lender, and "the underlying thing that makes our whole business possible is technology," Hamilton notes. "We have a team of 200 software engineers who develop internal applications and other systems for the mortgage process, marketing and mobile apps. The tech team takes a lot of responsibility to move the company forward. IT drives the business." That means a lot of opportunities to move around and gain experience across multiple areas, says Hamilton, adding that "you should remain broad in experience at the beginning and don't jump into a specialization."

"Early in their careers, most people do not have an exact idea of what they want to do, mainly because they don't know what the possibilities are," says Macaulay. "You don't know what you don't know, but meanwhile, there are a number of paths."

At Clearwire, for example, IT pros can pursue a super-technical individual contributor role, go down a more traditional management track or gain experience in people management and/or project management. Macaulay says he advises employees to volunteer for assignments in all of those areas to get an idea of what they like. His message is, "Identify your passions."

Jacobs Engineering sets up an individual development plan with each IT employee to learn what skills staffers want to acquire and what their project interests and career goals are. The plan is used as a guide for career rotation roles and cross-functional assignments. "This is something we do, not just for college graduates, but for everybody," says Carmody.

Eye the Horizon

What do I need to know before it gets here? "That should be the question you're always trying to answer," says Scott Caldwell, technical services manager at Johnson County Transit in Kansas City, Mo. For example, with the explosion in the popularity of tablets and smartphones, getting up to speed on mobile technology and the way it could be used at your company or in your industry is critical, because it will very likely play a role in every enterprise someday soon, if it isn't already.

"You have to seek out information and make the extra effort to find what the trends are. You want to make sure you know where things are going so you can be there," Caldwell says. "That doesn't mean you have to be an expert in mobile operating systems, but you need to know what it is and its impact on the industry as a whole."

Career Strategy

Map It

Launching a job search? A good starting point is to draw a career map, which at its simplest is an inventory of your skills, experience and goals. But it should also include much more.

"It's an analysis of your competencies and past work experience, plus a forward look at possibilities," says Ginny Clarke, president and CEO of Talent Optimization Partners in Chicago and author of Career Mapping: Charting Your Course in the New World of Work.

A career map also includes an outline of how to achieve one or more of the objectives you have. This could be a list of roles to move into or projects to get involved with as a means of gaining experience and new skills. "It's like a financial plan in which you look at how much money you have, how much you want and how you intend to get there," Clarke says.

Julia King

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