Opinion by Thornton May

3 steps to better IT career management

While every career involves a bit of luck and serendipity, they can and should be managed

Opinion by Thornton May

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Several of my futurist colleagues and I have been thinking about where, in these turbulent times, IT executives should go for career advice. 

We began by considering how IT career advice has evolved. Thirty years ago, the field of IT career advice was an unregulated wilderness of divergent actors. There were academics, rock-star executives, psychologists, bestselling authors, shamans/gurus and snake-oil salesmen.

Back then I worked at a boutique IT consultancy with a guy I’ll call Mr. Average. This guy was not impressive. He had no technical skills to speak of (he did not code or possess any certifications). He was not into networking. He was not an active listener. He did not keep up with developments in any industry or field. He lacked general business savvy, was not strategic in his outlook, exhibited little or no curiosity about the future, did not have any domain expertise in a vertical market, and repeatedly failed visibly to appreciate the nuances of either internal or customer politics. To top it all off, he was not very likable either. So, during one of the IT industry’s many cyclical downturns, it surprised no one there that Mr. Average left the company. What did surprise us was what he chose to do. Mr. Average set himself up as a single-shingle “career adviser.” He did this semi-successfully (meaning he was able to feed himself) for over a decade. The success of his clients is another matter entirely. 

Today, the IT career advice industry is huge, but it’s still absolutely unregulated. I long for the day when a firm such as Gartner or JD Power publishes data about how the IT professionals who have paid for the services of these advisers have done. Clients need to know whose advice is most likely to pay off. 

While every career involves a bit of luck and serendipity, there are some fundamental blocking and tackling preparations one can undertake to maximize the hopes of creating a sustainable work trajectory. Careers can and should be managed. 

Step 1: Select a high-growth vertical market

Historically, career advice began by counseling wannabe world-beaters that vertical market choice mattered greatly. Baby boomers need only recall Benjamin Braddock’s graduation party, where a friend of the family urged upon him this unsolicited career advice: “One word … plastics.” (Non-boomers may need to be told that we’re talking about Mike Nichols’ 1967 movie, The Graduate.) Plastics may not be the vertical of promise it once was, but there are still advantages in choosing a strong vertical market. The global economy, forecast to grow in the aggregate 3.5%, (World Economic Outlook) does not grow evenly. Some regions and some industries will grow faster than others. Situating oneself in a high-growth vertical market does not guarantee career success but increases the probability of positive opportunities. 

Depending on which consultancy or think tank you prefer, there exist a variety of lists suggesting which industries will dominate the future. (See also Alec Ross’ Industries of the Future). If you put all the lists together and look for patterns, the one vertical market/ecosystem that everyone agrees will be big in the future is healthcare/wellness/biotechnology. 

At the next Computerworld conference you attend, make a point of reaching out to people in high-growth vertical markets. Ask your solution partners to make introductions to IT professionals working in “of-interest” industries. 

Step 2: Select a high-demand skill set

Aaron Levie, the sneaker-wearing CEO at Box, has told C-level audiences, “If you want a job for the next 10 years, work in IT. If you want a job for life, work in cyber security.” Security is hot and will remain hot for at least the next 15 years. 

Chief information security officers are always looking for new talent. The responses they get from job postings are filled with IT people who want to move over to the security space. I think there is a huge opportunity for educational institutions — in every geography — to create a curriculum that allows mid-to-late-career IT professionals to reinvent themselves as infosec experts. I welcome readers’ thoughts on what that curriculum might look like and how long it should take. 

Any list of hot and very much in-demand skill sets would also include high-end analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

Step 3: Craft the next-generation résumé

Kevin Grossman (Tech Job Hunt Handbook) is not alone in detesting the résumé as a skills communication device, writing that “the résumé is a self-serving piece of inconsistently formatted and fudged professional drivel.” Michele Weise (co-author, with Clayton Christensen, of Hire Education: Mastery, Modernization, and the Workforce Revolution) suggests using a competency grid (à la the GitHub model) to help visualize one’s skills. 

In the retail and hospitality space, customers use apps such as Yelp and TripAdvisor to rate customer experiences. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could rate what it’s like to work with our job colleagues? That kind of transparency might actually change workplace behavior for the better. 

In the modern era, badges, microcredentials and certificates give some inkling what an IT worker can and cannot do. 

In a world where machines are becoming exponentially more capable, every job will be impacted. Some in the futurist community are forecasting a postwork future. 

The best career advice is to engage actively and constructively with multiple communities. There is probably a gathering of senior IT professionals in your area. Become part of that. If such a gathering does not exist, start one.


Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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