Head back to school to make the grade

Top tools to help technology professionals succeed

Remember when going back to school meant stocking up on pencils, erasers and notebooks? Sadly, for IT professionals, those days are long gone. In their place, we have the daily work grind, where returning to school means investing time, money and energy in continuing professional education.

But although going back to school now requires more than finding a Spider-Man pencil case, it pays off bigger, too -- especially when your enhanced skills advance your career, boost your marketability and raise your asking price.

With that in mind, here are the top tools and techniques that can help any technology pro achieve academic and professional success, in any tech sector.

IT + business = opportunity

The first critical step for IT pros is recognizing what they need to learn. This is not easy, considering the array of high-tech sectors out there, from manufacturing and communications IT to software and engineering, that require unique skills and qualifications.

In fact, a recent study from the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ontario, found that IT workers face greater stress than employees in other sectors. The main reason is the steady innovation and evolution of technology, which rapidly makes current IT skills obsolete. This forces IT employees to constantly retrain, in direct contrast with non-IT workers, whose skills build over time.

It's no wonder, then, that the ability to learn and adapt has become essential for successful IT careers. Yet even up-to-date IT skills are not enough. As the study's authors point out, strong management and leadership experience are also critical to IT functions.

"An organization may be committed to deploying the latest IT but will harvest little from its investment if the potential of the technology is not fully understood and realized," wrote Hsing-Yi Tsai, Deborah Compeau and Nicole Haggert, the study's authors. "IT professionals play a crucial role in achieving these advantages because they develop and exploit information technology to extract value by delivering the right technological solution to business problems."

The challenge of finding these qualified "two-in-one" candidates isn't lost on management. Robert Half Technology recently reported that the primary concern of many of the 1,400 CIOs it surveyed is managing increasing IT workloads, and retaining and motivating skilled staffers.

Still another report said 41 percent of those surveyed are placing greater importance on business fundamentals and making sure their IT staffs have organizational experience and capabilities.

In other words, the most valuable IT professionals understand their companies' strategies, operations and competitive environments, and they align that knowledge with technical expertise to develop viable technologies. But do enough of these people exist?

The path to IT education

The answer is a definite "maybe." Any employee can achieve the winning business-IT combination if he takes the proper steps to augment his skills and gain experience. Here are four proven ways to boost IT and business skills:

  • Take advantage of company training: Many companies are committed to educating their full-time employees as a way of optimizing their personnel investment. You can play a role, too, by incorporating training requests into annual performance reviews. This puts career aspirations on the company's radar screen and demonstrates your initiative and motivation.

    Company training also earmarks funding for your education in the annual budget. Employer and employee can then work together to determine the optimal training regimen, be it on-the-job mentorship, in-office workshops, off-site seminars, tuition reimbursement or similar programs.

  • Receive relevant academic degrees or executive training: The best-known advanced business degree is, of course, an MBA. Advanced IT degrees vary by tech sector, however. To differentiate themselves, IT workers should look to technology-based universities that boast strong engineering and science programs in addition to notable business programs.

    One undergraduate example of the value of multidisciplinary programs is IBM's partnership with Missouri State University. The alliance offers the nation's first B.S. degree in IT service management. Students learn to use technology for service delivery and support to better manage people, processes and assets.

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