How to take control of your own IT career

The new economy puts you in the driver's seat of your career. Can you handle it? We'll show you how.

The days of building a lifelong IT career at a single company are long gone. And now, the days of building a lifelong IT career just within the IT department are dwindling, too.

Technology professionals today are just as often advancing their careers through a marketing group or supply chain organization as they are through an application development team or software quality group. Tech staffers are migrating into new roles -- frequently with non-IT job titles -- throughout the enterprise, working on an array of projects that require tech savvy in addition to business and process knowledge, management skills and more.

To move ahead in 2013, you'll first need to drop any lingering notions of vertical ladder-climbing. After that, it's all about exiting your comfort zone and actively seeking out new and different opportunities, rather than relying on traditional organizational charts, human resources or even your own immediate manager. Your very best career strategy, experts say, is to take over the navigation controls yourself. Your very career and livelihood depend on the out-of-the-box thinking that goes into formulating and then executing such a strategy.

There's no doubt the process of career strategizing can be daunting, but it can also be empowering because your strategy will be based on your individual passions and skills as well as your career goals.

We asked veteran IT professionals to share their best advice for mapping and continually updating a personalized guide to your career future. You can start by deleting your old plans, because 2013 marks the start of a radically different IT career landscape.

Do Your Research

Not all career strategies must be drawn entirely from scratch. Check first to see what kind of career tools or development programs your potential or current employer may have on the books. "Find out if they're going to invest in your career and ask about movement of IT people into different roles," advises Andrew Macaulay, senior vice president of IT at Bellevue, Wash.-based Clearwire, which builds and operates mobile broadband networks. While most IT professionals are indeed on their own, an increasing number of companies have or are developing detailed plans for rotating and advancing employees through different roles.

"We have specific job descriptions that help employees see what they need to do to get to where they want to go," Macaulay says. "People are laying out their careers three years at a time and creating their individual development goals to get there."

At BNSF Railway in Fort Worth, Texas, recent college graduates are recruited into a management training program, which includes rotating through various assignments across the freight transportation company. "We spend time educating people in what BNSF is about and how we operate," says CIO Jo-ann Olsovsky. "It's not something you learn overnight. We're trying to accelerate the learning curve."

Olsovsky says teaching participants about BNSF's culture is one of the key goals. "While going through all of their assignments, people learn that BNSF is an operations-oriented company. That's the culture. We move freight," she says. "In an operations culture, what gets rewarded are those things that deal with operations, like dealing with a crisis," she says. As an IT professional, "you have to figure out a company's culture and decide if it's for you," she adds. "It's a way to shortcut your way to rewards. One area where I see people miss steps is not understanding the culture of the company they're in."

Time Your Moves

Jim Clementson, director of technology at Providence Health, likens the points on a career plan to steppingstones across a stream. Their ultimate purpose is to help you get to the other side, but it's best to take them one at a time.

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