11 ways to re-energize your IT career

Mid-career blues, begone. Here are 11 actionable items tech pros can tackle to keep moving on up in IT.

re-energize your IT career

Stuck in the middle -- and blue?

Eric Reed knows a thing or two about mid-career pitfalls. He's seen some mid-level IT managers get too enamored with technology for its own sake, rather than viewing it as a way to advance business goals. Other would-be leaders didn't know how to communicate or collaborate with non-IT colleagues and were sidelined as techies rather than ID'd as future business leaders.

Reed is grateful he was able to overcome those challenges in his own career and sustain his momentum -- he's now CTO at GE Capital. With that goal in mind, Computerworld asked Reed and other seasoned IT pros for advice on how to keep your tech career from getting bogged down. Read on for their tips.

Develop a road map

Develop a road map

It's smart to know not just where you want to land but how best to get there. Piera Palazzolo, senior vice president at Dale Carnegie Training, which specializes in business-oriented improvement, recommends starting with self-reflection. Map out the exact positions you'd like to hold and the ultimate title you'd like to achieve. "Then set a course for yourself and find out what you need to learn," Palazzolo says. Talk to your supervisor and other higher-ups in the company to determine how they can help you and whether your company's plans for you mesh with your own.

Bob Flynn, manager of IT community partnerships at Indiana University, says his organization requires each worker to have a career management plan, which he says helps him and his colleagues to map out their goals.

Gain new perspective

Gain new perspective

Managers often pay lip service to the concept of "walking the shop floor," but James Stanger, senior director of product development at CompTIA, an IT trade association, suggests going beyond the typical pat-on-the-back mentality. Instead, get to know how your direct reports, your colleagues and your customers view the world.

"In middle management, due to the demands of the job and just trying to get it done, people get these blinders on, and they don't think about how others think," Stanger says. Try asking: What do you think about this problem? What's your perspective? Can you explain your need here?

"Take those blinders off and you'll find yourself much more nimble in your thinking," Stanger says, which in turn will make you a better problem-solver -- a valued leadership quality.

Find leadership opportunities

Find leadership opportunities

To continue honing your leadership skills, look for opportunities that will get you noticed -- especially ones outside of your department. "Volunteer for a cross-functional task force that exposes you to senior leaders. Get out of your silo, and get more people in your organization to know who you are," says Carly Goldsmith, a career coach specializing in guiding mid-career professionals. She suggests seeking out projects and committees that will help you grow your skills.

One of her clients took Goldsmith's advice, joining a project that required her to have more interactions and strategic conversations with senior leaders. The move paid off: She was offered a promotion shortly after the project wrapped up.

Be a perfectionist

Be a perfectionist

Sure, no one's perfect, but if you're gunning for more responsibilities, you have to make sure you're doing your current job as close to perfect as possible.

Sean Andersen, director of interactive services at Six Flags Entertainment Corp., works with IT managers across the company's 18 theme parks. He says he notices the ones who "keep their house in order" -- consistently fulfilling all of their assigned duties, including routine and mundane tasks that often get overlooked. Andersen taps those individuals for special projects because they're most likely to be able to handle additional responsibilities.

Case in point: When the company launched a pilot program with the new Chromebox two years ago, he went to the manager who had everything else already under control.

Learn and share

Learn constantly, and share what you discover

To protect yourself from becoming technically obsolete as you move up in management and away from the tech trenches, you need to be constantly building and refreshing a well-rounded set of skills. "The idea is to be constantly learning," CompTIA's Stanger says. Take more classes, get another certification, earn an advanced degree, he says.

If you're like most workers, your current job requirements already fill your work week, which means you'll have to dig hard to find more hours for learning something new. Andersen, the Six Flags executive, says he carves out time -- usually late at night -- to read up on and test out new technologies. And he says he likewise has doled out plum assignments to direct reports who show similar initiative.

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Compensate for your blind spots

Reed, the CTO at GE Capital, admits that in the past he often didn't think about the impact his decisions had on other people. "I'd sign onto an objective and put together a plan, but I was not thinking about the ramifications on the team," he says. He didn't realize the problem until someone on his team called him out on it.

Reed says his headlong decision-making style didn't kill his career, but it had done some damage with his business partners. Now that he's became aware of his blind spot, he works to keep it front of mind as he makes commitments that affect his team.

Bernadette Rasmussen, divisional senior vice president of information management and CTO of Health Care Service Corp. (HCSC), agrees with Reed's approach. "Listen to your team members, listen to your peers and listen to your business leaders," she advises.

how the business makes money

Know how your business makes money…

It's not enough to have generic business acumen. That's required for most technologists these days.

To gain a leadership position, you have to know how your organization operates and, more importantly, how it makes money. "Some people get into middle management and they don't understand that. They don't understand that we're not here to implement neat technology. We're here to help the business make money," Reed says.

He recommends spending more time meeting with business colleagues to develop that insight and then using it to make smarter decisions within IT. Understanding which technologies have the biggest impact on the company's bottom line will help you prioritize projects and deliver the big bang that draws attention, Reed says.

use knowledge to drive results

… then use that knowledge to drive business results

As an IT middle manager, you most certainly need to know technology and must consistently deliver on your technology projects. As an aspiring C-level leader, your priority should be making sure those projects deliver a tangible benefit to the company. In other words, show your ROI.

"You must change your perspective from mastering technology to helping your organization drive results," says HCSC's Rasmussen. "Help connect the dots, drive change with perspective beyond your own and add your unique value," she advises.

Be the expert that people seek out

Be the expert that people seek out

You need to be more than an expert to attain a corner office -- you need to be the expert.

Theresa Caragol learned that lesson during her upward climb. "You have to be the best and have the deepest expertise so someone says, 'If I want to understand this, I have to go talk to this person.' And if you're the expert in more than one technology, that's even better," she says.

Caragol, now global vice president for channels and partners at Extreme Networks Inc., positioned herself as an expert in software-defined networking at a previous employer. Her mentors helped line up opportunities for her to speak on the topic, which brought her to the attention of those in positions to promote her. She worked her way up to vice president of global channel, alliances and partners at Ciena Corp., her previous employer, a role that in turn served as a stepping stone to her current position.

manage up

Manage up and manage down

If you really want to shine, make sure your team does. And make your manager look good, too. After all, in almost all cases your boss will be the one to recommend you for top assignments and promotions. Have regular face-to-face conversations where you can talk about company objectives, professional goals and, yes, even your personal interests, says Dale Carnegie Training's Palazzolo.

Put the same effort into building relationships with your team, because you're only as good as the output you get from them. Vidhya Ranganathan, senior vice president of products and engineering at cloud-services firm Accellion Inc., takes a commonsense approach to building relationships. She regularly has lunch with her team and chats over coffee. "It's not to give them [formal] guidance, but to just listen and let them know I'm available," she says.

Avoid missteps

Avoid missteps

To make your rise through the ranks as painless as possible:

  • Don't wait for your manager to offer you opportunities. There's a reason why Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently found himself embroiled a firestorm of criticism when he urged women seeking a raise to "have faith in the system" rather than asking for what they want -- it's bad advice for all employees. "Too often, middle managers take a passive approach to their career advancement" -- including raises and promotions, career-coach Goldsmith says. "Go out and find the opportunities yourself.
  • Don't linger in a job you dislike or that's not well suited for you. "Motivation plummets, mistakes are made, stress increases. And whether you're conscious of it or not, you start to be seen as a poor performer," Goldsmith explains.
  • Don't get trapped in the weeds. According to Goldsmith, middle managers often do more hands-on work than they should. You need to move out of the tech trenches and lead your team, not code with them.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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