Midcareer Kickers

Like other IT managers, Sean Jameson is at a turning point in his career. He knows that he has to take the right steps to get to the next level -- whether that means an internal promotion or a position with another organization.

"I think the closer you get to the boardroom, the more you have to understand about business units," says Jameson, chief information technology officer at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. He says he has been able to rise through the ranks in IT over the past 12 years largely on the strength of his technical skills.

But at the midpoint in his IT career, Jameson is forcing himself to be considerably more business-focused. He talks frequently to managers in business units throughout the university to better understand the challenges they face in their departments and develop IT strategies aimed at helping them meet their goals.

He's also thinking about pursuing an MBA -- which would be free if he enrolls at NYU -- to help him build on his business skills and advance his career should he decide to move into more of a corporate setting at some point. "It's a tough decision," he says.

Many other IT managers and technicians who have spent 10 to 20 years working in IT also find themselves facing difficult choices as they try to carve out new opportunities.

"Keeping your skills up to date is probably the biggest challenge that both technicians and IT managers face at this point in their careers," says Arnold Testa, CIO at Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an independent, nonprofit center for electricity and environmental research in Palo Alto, Calif.

Testa's advice to IT workers at midcareer who are seeking advancement: Show that you're excited about your work, demonstrate a willingness to be trained in new technologies or business skills, "and grow the technical leadership you've attained in the first part of your career," he says. That could include transitioning from being a reliable technician to being an IT project manager, says Testa, who oversees a 50-person IT staff.

But many technical workers are unwilling to learn new skills, and that's a big stumbling block for them if they want to move their careers forward -- much less survive -- in today's globally competitive labor market, says Martin Bean, chief operations officer at New Horizons Computer Learning Center in California.

"We can't think about job security. We have to think about career security and keep developing ourselves and moving ahead," advises Bean.

"People who are at the midpoint in their careers need to have more cross-training in different technologies and skill sets, both to attract themselves to other employers and to protect themselves against downsizing," adds Rick Stockfield, CEO of Talenthire.com, an Atlanta-based job-placement service.

But some IT professionals, like Alan Mastin, an IT project leader at Colomer USA, a haircare product maker, work for companies with razor-thin training budgets and thus have limited educational opportunities.

Mastin, a 24-year IT veteran who spends most of his time developing Cobol programs, works in a 15-person IT shop where there are few opportunities for advancement and very little turnover. "Somebody has to die before a position becomes open," he says.

Mastin and his co-workers face other challenges. Colomer is transitioning to an SAP enterprise resource planning system over the next year, and the IT staffers have been told they will be retrained as business analysts. "I'll give it a shot and see what it's like," says Mastin, 53.

Some IT professionals who do have access to technical training say they simply don't have the time to take classes. For instance, Philadelphia-based Quaker Valley Foods moved in January from a 63,000-square-foot facility to a building that's four times bigger. The eight-month effort, which included installing telecommunications equipment and wiring, turned out to be very time-consuming, says Leo Romero, a network administrator there.

"It's a massive job when you're just a three-person department," he says.

IT workers at midcourse face other obstacles as they look to the future. Most technicians are uncomfortable about sharing their career plans with their supervisors, but it's critical for them to do so, says Nextel Communications CIO Dick Lefave.

"It's important for people to take the time out to lay out what they want to do and where they want to go," he says. Their supervisors can then help to plot a path and determine the skills they'll need to acquire to get there, Lefave says.

"You have to realize that you can't be waiting for your boss to present you with opportunities - you have to be the No. 1 advocate for yourself," says Maria Schafer, an analyst at Gartner. "Managers are too busy with too many direct reports to devote that time to you."

Look First, Leap Later

Some IT managers, such as Todd Larson, director of application development at Boston-based Eaton Vance, are torn about their career advancement options. "If I want to attain CIO status, I would probably have to leave this company, and I don't want to have to do that -- and my boss doesn't want me to either," he says.

It's a difficult position that many midcareer IT workers find themselves in. One of the mistakes people should avoid is taking a job at another company if you think you've gone as far as you can with your existing employer, says EPRI's Testa. "I think the mistake is to leap before you look."

Larson, a 15-year IT professional, believes that external forces such as globalization will have the greatest impact on his career choices. "We're following a strategy today of not using offshore labor. But we might not have a choice someday -- it might become too cost-effective," he says.

One way to stay a step ahead of outsourcing is to demonstrate a willingness to learn new skills in order to remain marketable, says Schafer. That might mean abandoning a purely technical job and stepping into more of a customer-facing role, she adds.

It's also important for technicians and IT managers alike at midcareer to recognize their weaknesses and broaden their skills, says Lefave. Last year, he attended a three-month advanced management program at Harvard University, paid for by his company, to help him expand his strategic and financial know-how.

"It exposed me to a variety of executives from different companies, not just IT executives, but CFOs and COOs," says Lefave. Such programs "help balance your acumen as a business person."

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