6 traits of up-and-coming IT stars

What qualities put IT pros on the fast track? We talk to five rising stars -- and their CIOs -- to find what sets them apart (and what you can do to make your star rise, too).

All ambitious IT professionals know they need impeccable technical skills, a strong work ethic and a gift for fostering collaboration in order to rise through the ranks. But beyond that, what X factor sets future leaders apart from their colleagues — and what habits can you adopt to put yourself on a similar path?

To find out, Computerworld talked with five senior-level technologists, all of whom have been designated by their CIOs as rising stars with the potential to someday claim seats in the executive suite.

Here's what these folks have in common: They gravitate toward big, gnarly projects; they build and lead high-performance teams; they live and breathe business strategy; they learn from failure; and they lead with humility. And maybe most importantly, they love this stuff -- for real.

"I love projects with high risk and lots of constraints because the deliverable hasn't been prescripted," says Mike Gritz, senior management analyst for the Las Vegas city government, echoing sentiments expressed by all of his fellow rising stars. "If we screw up, at least we tried -- and learned what didn't work. But more often than not, we come up with something that really shines."

Here's a rundown of the key traits, along with advice from the five up-and-comers on ways to hone your own leadership skills.

1. They take on big, gnarly projects

All midcareer IT professionals work on big projects; what sets rising stars apart is their tendency to run toward, rather than away from, the train wrecks that nobody else wants to tackle.

"Give me the biggest, hairiest, most complex problems," says Kirsten Wolberg, vice president of technology at PayPal in San Jose, Calif. "I really like challenges that don't have an obvious solution, projects with a lot of tentacles and a lack of clear ownership and direction. I like collaborating and building teams to solve problems."

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Kirsten Wolberg, Paypal

Wolberg got her wish at PayPal -- and then some. For the past 10 months, she has led a team overseeing the separation of PayPal from its former parent company, eBay. It's a project that encompasses not just technology but also HR, financial and legal issues -- literally every department of the business is involved.

Co-workers kidded Wolberg, saying she must have ticked off someone upstairs to get stuck with such a convoluted project, but in fact she raised her hand to take the lead.

While some 800 people from various domains worked on the separation at various times, Wolberg herself had only three direct reports. That created an additional challenge, because it meant she had to manage through relationships and influence, rather than taking advantage of her position in the chain of command.

That's a hallmark that sets rising stars apart from their colleagues, says Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates, which specializes in recruiting CIOs and senior-level IT directors. It's one thing to manage a project — even a large one with multiple moving parts -- within the domain of IT, Heller says. But it takes a different level of talent to manage cross-functional initiatives that have the potential to transform the business. "It's being able to have a strategic idea, go get funding for it, lead people who don't report to you, and manage resistance to change," she says.

Wolberg says she loved it all. "I would call it a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity," she says. (For more of Heller's thoughts on developing IT talent, check out this video).

Her manager seems pretty happy, too. "Kirsten has the business and industry knowledge, technical acumen, emotional intelligence and pure determination to move mountains," says CTO James Barrese.

Rising stars are the ones most willing to take on difficult projects with eagerness, agrees Joanne Wilken, senior vice president of business relationship and systems delivery at Scottrade Financial Services in St. Louis.

One such IT pro in Wilken's organization, Vicki Schumacher, vice president of process governance and reporting, is currently immersed in a multi­year project to launch and implement the COBIT 5 governance framework at Scottrade.

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Vicki Schumacher, Scottrade

"As the owner of process governance, this was a natural fit for me, but it's a big challenge because COBIT 5 is new to the industry," says Schumacher, who notes that part of her job is to help others understand what the framework is and what it does for the organization, and how the changes will impact them personally.

Tackling multi-tentacled projects that break new ground inside an organization -- and beyond -- is all in a day's work for a rising IT star.

In Las Vegas, Gritz's manager says he relies on Gritz to handle nonstandard requests for services that require him to partner with outside agencies -- sometimes very reluctant agencies. "Mike is consistently at the forefront of those technologies and services in government that don't currently have a prescribed plan or process," says Joseph Marcella, the city's CIO and director of information technologies. "He's not encumbered by the standard government technology boundaries."

Gritz was instrumental in getting free Wi-Fi service delivered to the downtown Las Vegas area -- at no cost to the city, which didn't want to actually manage the service, just facilitate its implementation. Large carriers like Verizon weren't interested in providing free Wi-Fi; that meant Gritz had to negotiate with smaller companies. In exchange for the free service the city desired, he could offer only some modest advertising opportunities and a bucketful of civic goodwill -- but he prevailed.

"When you're doing high-risk projects at low or no cost, you need to get innovative with your partners," Gritz says.

2. They build and lead high-performance teams

As technologists move up in an organization, their work becomes less hands-on and more about managing the people who are hands-on.

It's not a task everyone is equally suited for, Heller says. Plenty of managers can keep a team functioning on time and under budget, but it takes a special talent to hire and nurture a workforce that executes at peak efficiency and excellence.

"If I'm a vice president hiring a director of IT, ultimately what I want to know is, 'Can this person succeed me?'" Heller says. "Do they have to have the capacity in a tight job market to develop and mobilize a team?"

Sean Valcamp, who started and built up a solutions integration practice at Avnet, is mindful that his performance is only as good as the 11 people he oversees. "When you become a leader, the job becomes less about technology and more about people, and people don't behave like zeros and ones," he says.

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Sean Valcamp, Avnet

Valcamp is currently director of IT at the Phoenix-based global electronics distribution company, and he's also responsible for enterprise architecture, IT security and enterprise effectiveness. His No. 1 priority is to ensure that his team is continually developing. "I tell them, 'I don't want you to tread water, I want you to swim,'" he says.

Tim Raymond, too, credits his communication skills for his ability to successfully lead a tech team. As director of campus and Web applications at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Raymond leads a team of 18 IT staffers, but he frequently must build cross-functional partnerships with university employees who aren't versed in technology. "I can speak tech to anybody at their level — whether it's geek-to-geek or to people who are afraid of technology — and that serves me well in this position," he says.

Raymond says he has learned that time spent nurturing employees always yields a good return on investment.

"It's tempting as an IT manager to concentrate on overseeing operational issues and not spend as much time with the people on the staff," he observes, "but if you put that time into being clear and open with your employees, the operations will take care of themselves."

3. They live and breathe business strategy

Every tech professional knows by now that understanding the business is central to IT's mission. But exceptional technology leaders don't just understand business strategy; they internalize it.

Scottrade's Schumacher says she makes a conscious effort to "understand the mission of the company and the culture of the company, and the IT strategy that our CIO and his leaders have put together.

"I try to take that into account in everyday decisions, to make sure I'm always setting strategy as we move forward," says Schumacher, whose duties at Scottrade include responsibility for portfolio management, IT workforce analysis, IT work initiative and agile processes, and software development methodologies.

Strategic vision is one way Heller and other recruiters determine if a director-level IT professional is ready to move up the ladder. "We look for people with the ability to contextualize the work they do in the broader context of the business and its goals. This kind of end-to-end process thinking -- the ability to think broader than your particular role and responsibility -- means IT people are ready to make improvements far beyond their specific areas of expertise."

Avnet's vice president of IT, Brian Chan, says that's a quality he values in Valcamp. "Sean is among a rare breed of IT professionals that combines technology savviness with strategic thinking," Chan says. "One of Sean's responsibilities includes developing Avnet's IT strategic plan, and his ability to connect emerging technology with the company's strategic needs definitely differentiates him from his peer group."

4. They learn from failure

Like other up-and-coming IT professionals, PayPal's Wolberg has learned during her tenure in IT that career-defining projects are often the ones with the highest degree of risk. If you're afraid to fail, she says, you'll never have a chance to prove yourself.

Which is why Wolberg is grateful that Barrese, her boss, let her direct the PayPal-eBay transition the way she wanted, even though he thought she might be setting herself up to fail. "It was a big-bang implementation, which is not the way we typically do things at PayPal, but for this project, I believed it was the only way we were going to be successful," Wolberg explains. "James said, 'If you're willing to throw yourself on the grenade, I will support you.' You have to believe in yourself and be willing to take risks."

Fortunately for Wolberg, the separation turned out to be "wildly successful." But even when that's not the case, there are important leadership lessons to learn, says Heller. "There's a reason why 'Tell me about a failure' is a standard interview question," Heller says. "If you only ever do things where you're successful, you're missing out on the opportunity to become a better leader."

Cal Poly Pomona's Raymond says a round of career coaching taught him to think of mistakes in a new way, and he believes that helped his leadership skills.

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Tim Raymond, Cal Poly Pomona

"Failures are just 'unexpected outcomes,'" he says with a laugh. "But in all seriousness, if you can say, 'I screwed this up, but here's how I'll do it differently in the future,' that's a learning opportunity."

Raymond had one such "learning opportunity" last year when he led a team charged with implementing a new campus portal.

It was the first time the university had used open source on a campuswide scale, and Raymond recalls that "We went into it with our eyes open, knowing we didn't have the skill set that the platform was based on" — a Java-based Spring Framework MVC application. But despite the lack of in-house expertise, "we felt it was the right solution," he adds. "We said we'd reskill folks. It was a professional development opportunity."

Unfortunately, much of the team got redeployed to other areas before they could master the new programming techniques. The portal is hardly a failure -- it's up and running, Raymond says -- but new feature rollouts have been slow in coming.

For him, the lesson learned is an important one for running a team: Either ensure that people will be granted enough time to learn new skills, or choose methodologies and technologies that they already know.

5. They lead with humility

What's the most subtle leadership quality? Heller doesn't hesitate: humility. "You see some younger people who pride themselves on being the smartest person in the room. That's not who we're looking for," she says. All good leaders understand that in some areas they are indeed experts, but in others, they're students.

When hashing things out with employees to whom he has delegated responsibilities, Raymond says he's careful to share his opinion but not let it dominate the discussion. "I don't necessarily know everything, and my staff knows that. I tell folks that they should be telling me what's up in their areas of expertise. If I do have an opinion, I'll share that, but I yield to the people who are tasked with making the decision."

That's a quality valued by Raymond's manager at Cal Poly Pomona, vice president and CIO John McGuthry. "The qualities that set Tim apart from most young leaders are his unique and successful ability to focus and to listen with enthusiasm -- talents that are difficult to teach," says McGuthry.

Another innate quality of IT pros on the rise: their tendency to give credit to their teams while taking little for themselves. "Without your team you are nothing," says Heller.

That message resonates with Avnet's Valcamp. "It sounds clichéd, but I really do think of myself as a team player," he says. "My success is not about me, it's about the success of our organization. I'm not trying to 'climb the ladder,' I'm trusting in a system that recognizes contributions to the organization."

6. They love what they do -- for real

Passion is another all-but-clichéd buzzword that can elicit eye rolls, but there's no denying the fact that people who excel in technology leadership do so because they're genuinely excited by technology -- and often have been since childhood.

For example, Gritz was a gamer as a kid, and he first got into programming by writing his own PC games. As an adult, he feeds his curiosity by picking up new tech skills -- he holds certifications in project management and geographic information systems.

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Mike Gritz, City of Las Vegas

Likewise, Raymond says he has been "hooked on computers" since discovering the Commodore PET in sixth grade. He made his way to IT via graphic design, a less traditional pathway. "The World Wide Web really grabbed my attention when I first saw it," he recalls. "It just lit up my passion. I was coming from a graphic-design background and there just seemed to be a world of possibilities there. I started working with HTML back when you had to code everything by hand."

For her part, Schumacher says she isn't embarrassed to make a connection between her overall approach to work and life and her efforts to promote agile development at Scottrade. "A lot of what I champion as a manager are team collaboration and open communication, and those are really the fundamentals of agile," she says. "I really truly do believe in everything we're doing."

And then there's Wolberg, who believes so strongly that employees should be happy and fulfilled in their jobs that, at a previous company, she went so far as to make pins for her team that said, "I :-> my job."

She carried that passion with her to PayPal. "I truly, honestly believe in my heart that if you don't love what you're doing, people can sense that," she says. "It especially doesn't work in leadership -- if I'm asking employees to be productive, seek out challenges and collaborate, I need to be all-in and right there with them."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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