Pity the poor, ambitious IT professional. With technology more important to the bottom line than ever, you'd think there'd be career opportunities up the wazoo. But the suits don't really understand what you do for a living. And they hold the keys to the executive washroom. So, while you're down in the server closet saving the company's bacon on a daily basis, these guys are upstairs in the corner offices with the nice view.
It doesn't have to be that way. And it won't be, if you assemble a solid strategy for advancing your career.
We spoke with CEOs and CIOs, honchos and headhunters on what it takes to climb the corporate ladder in this increasingly techcentric world. Compiled here are our top 20 rules for creating and capitalizing on career opportunities.
1. Think business first, technology second
"There is no such thing as an 'IT project.' There are only business projects with an IT component," says June Drewry, CIO of Chubb, a US$48 billion insurance group based.
It's the cardinal rule of career success: If you want to move up the corporate ladder, you must think like a businessperson first and a technologist second, says Ray Howell, senior director of applications development at Sapphire Technologies, an IT staffing company.
"The thing that helped me most early on was figuring out that I needed to see IT projects from the business side of things," Howell says. "In meetings where we'd talk about tech projects, I was able to step into the shoes of the finance and sales guys and see the problem from their eyes, which helped me find solutions faster. My supervisors recognized this, which is how I moved up quickly."
"Employees who understand the link between technology and its impact on the business are in incredibly high demand right now," notes Paul Taylor, regional vice president at Hudson, a staffing and talent management company. "Those skills will definitely not go unnoticed when it comes time for promotions."
2. Raise the bar ... and leave it there
Naturally, those who go beyond the call of duty are most likely to ascend the fastest. But like it or not, you must excel regularly, not in fits and starts.
"Consistent overachievement is the fastest way to get recognized," says Brendan Courtney, senior vice president at Spherion, a US$2 billion recruiting and staffing company. "That means being able to multitask and accomplish things even when you're busy, or demonstrating leadership skills that go beyond what you were hired to do."
"The more responsibility you take on, the more indispensable you become," adds Carly Drum, managing director of Drum Associates, an executive search company in New York. "The more you 'burst your box' -- or hit the limit of what you can deliver -- the more people need to be hired beneath you. And when people get hired beneath you, you get promoted."
The key here is to make sure you can deliver the goods before saying yes to new responsibilities.
3. Hold your nose and raise your hand
One way to do more is to volunteer for projects nobody else wants and then excel at them. Sunil Misra says his first big break came as a 24-year-old software engineer, when he volunteered to lead the night shift that was testing his company's document management/CAD software.
"This got me noticed by senior management," says Misra, who is now vice president of consulting services at Getronics, an information and communication technology services company based in Amsterdam. "It also got me exposed to a completely different set of folks -- end-user testers -- which I would normally not have had a chance to work with at that point in my career. Right after this, I was asked to take on project management for the release of our next product suite."
But there's a big caveat, Misra adds. "If you volunteer to do something, you need to make sure it gets done. I have seen lots of folks volunteering for stuff but never actually completing it."
4. Don't pass the buck
Take on enough new projects and eventually one will blow up in your face. When it does, it's better to take the hit than it is to point the finger, says Jack Ford, CEO of Charette, a distributor of wide-format imaging equipment.
"I'm looking for people who are not only willing to take on projects but also to take responsibility for them when things go badly," Ford says. "In the IT world, if a project is not succeeding or isn't on schedule, it's easy to say it's because operations or sales or outside suppliers aren't cooperating. But it's better to say, 'I understand this project isn't getting done, but here's what we're going to do to get back up to speed.'"
5. Be a lone voice in the wilderness
Bosses promote leaders. An important aspect of leadership is having strong opinions and knowing how to express them, regardless of whose toes might get stepped on, says Mark Stevens, CEO of global marketing company MSCO and author of "Your Management Sucks: Why You Have to Declare War on Yourself and Your Business."
"Many people fear if they express their true opinions they'll be held back, but in most cases the converse is true," Stevens says. "You won't get ahead by soft-soaping and saying, 'What a lovely pair of shoes you're wearing.' You inspire people to follow you by standing up for principle and going against the grain. Be willing to take the first bullets."
"I actually like people to disagree with me," Ford says. "It forces me to rethink what I believe we should do." But no matter what the message is, it's all in the delivery, Ford adds. "By saying things like, 'I see what you're saying, but what about this approach?' you're not directly criticizing a senior person, you're just asking them to consider other options."
6. Back down gracefully
You muster your courage, stand up in a meeting, and tactfully tell the boss his idea sucks. But they go ahead and do it anyway. Now what?
Pouting is not an option. Unless you're willing to quit on the spot, you've got to deal with the ramifications of that decision -- and be prepared for the worst, if necessary.
"There are times when the company is following a path you think is deadly, and you may have to bet your job that they're wrong and you're right," Chubb's Drewry says. "But when the decision is made and it doesn't go your way, you need to get onboard and figure out how to mitigate the risk from that decision as much as possible."
7. Develop a killer app
Few of us will ever build an OS that doesn't crash or a Web service app that cuts admin costs by 50 percent. But if you can become the go-to guy or gal on a subject that's vital to your firm's future, then that's the "killer app" that can carry you to success, MSCO's Stevens says.
"Find one thing that's important to your company and become the best person at it," Stevens advises. "If you're working in international finance, learn more about the Deutschemark than anyone else in the world. If your company sells shoes, become an expert on pricing structures or manufacturing techniques. Word will spread quickly that you're the person to find when they have questions."
There's a pitfall here. If your expertise comes across as too technical, all you'll do is cement a reputation as a hopeless geek. Still, there is room for geekiness: It should be quietly applied to something central to your company's business strategy. For example, becoming an expert on streamlining data flows could lead to improved customer relations.
"A killer app is the differentiator," Stevens says. "It's how you win."
8. Stay on the cutting edge
Your tech chops can keep you out ahead the pack but only if you keep them sharp. Jump on any offer for training opportunities that involve emerging technologies such as SOA, collaborative apps, or data warehousing. "You need to stay on the cutting edge," says David Bair, vice president of technology staffing at KForce, a professional staffing company. "A stale skill set can be one of the most fatal flaws in a technology career path."
If your company doesn't offer training in bleeding-edge technologies, find a course and pay for it yourself. "If spending $2K now means a $20K bump down the road, that's a pretty good return on investment," Bair says.
9. Feed your mind
Education shouldn't stop at tech skills. Business courses and professional certifications may pay off even more handsomely in the long run.
Dave Simon, IT director at the Sierra Club, says one of the things that helped propel his career was becoming a certified public accountant, which he pursued at the encouragement of his boss.
"Getting the CPA certification paid off well in that it gave me both business knowledge and more credibility with line management," Simon says. "I was no longer just viewed as a techie."
Sapphire's Howell says he's currently enrolled in a high-tech MBA program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which he's paying for out of his own pocket.
"I'm constantly trying to push myself, to make myself grow in more than one way," Howell says.
10. Find your Yoda
For many people, finding the right mentor -- or mentors -- is the single most important factor in their career development.
"I've been with three firms, and in every one I partnered with individuals who were not only paramount in helping with my professional development, they also had the ability to influence decisions that affected my career," KForce's Bair says.
Usually it's up to you to seek out like-minded individuals. However, at companies such as Sun Microsystems, mentoring is built into the organizational DNA. At any time some 150 to 200 employees worldwide are enrolled in the SEED (Sun Engineering Enrichment and Development) program, a one-to-one mentoring regime that matches Sun's most promising employees with senior-level engineers and executives. New hires meet with their mentors for one to two hours every two weeks for a year; more established employees sign up for at least six months. But many end up doing much more, says Katy Dickinson, director of business process architecture at Sun. One mentor/mentee pair ended up writing a book and filing 13 patents together, she says.
More important, SEED graduates earn four times the promotions and receive double the number of top performance ratings as the average Sun employee, Dickinson says.
"We're looking for people who can become the future leaders of the technology or business sides of our company" Dickinson adds.