IT careers: It's not just about the title

One of the bigger barriers companies face when developing IT professionals is tradition -- the one that says employees have to climb a career ladder.

Employees steeped in this tradition resist assignments that don't move them to the next rung. It also makes employers wary of employees who don't progress to the next rung on a regular basis.

This tradition is contrary to what employers need from their IT staff: Broad and deep exposure to all parts of IT, and to all parts of the company.

Consider a traditional developer with expertise in Java, C++, and .Net. Ask a manager whether his or her employee would be more valuable with some data administration and data design experience, and the answer is clear.

But ask the developer to accept a temporary assignment as an apprentice DBA and the response is just as predictable -- a resounding no, even if the employer maintains the developer's current compensation. The risk of having an on-paper demotion in the personnel file is simply too big a risk for many employees to take.

Although it takes considerable effort and some adventurous volunteers, IT organizations gain immense benefit from promoting an alternative to the traditional career ladder. Call it the career random walk.

Organizations that have moved from career ladders to random walks recognized that the shift calls for a significant change in thinking on the part of IT managers. For years, they've been taught to assess job applicants (and as a result, their employees) in terms of marketable skills.

The career random walk places more emphasis on a different trait -- the habit of success.

Companies that encourage random walks consider a career to be a series of successful assignments. As their employees succeed in these assignments they gain breadth, depth, and exposure to an increasing range of situations, technologies, methodologies, and leadership situations. As this happens, they are naturally given new assignments that continue to provide new challenges and opportunities for further growth.

The change can be disconcerting for employer and employee alike. When a company achieves it, the benefits are significant: Employees, freed from the pursuit of the next title, gain confidence in their ability to succeed at whatever challenge they are given. Employers gain flexibility in their ability to place employees where they are most needed.

All they have to give up in the bargain is an expectation neither side can always live up to.

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