Navigating the Fork in the IT Road

"When you see the fork in the road, take it." - Yogi Berra.

Yogi Berra, the New York Yankee Hall of Famer known for his malapropisms, writes in his best-selling book "When Your Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It! Inspiration and Wisdom from One of Baseball's Greatest Heroes" (2001, Hyperion) that the key to navigating pivotal junctures in life is to follow your gut, make a choice, and don't look back.

"Make a firm decision. Make sure it feels right. Don't second- guess yourself -- there's no need to give yourself ulcers," Berra states.

Since Berra's approach to his career landed him in Cooperstown, it's safe to conclude that it can apply to mapping out a successful IT career as well, particularly at those crucial career crossroads.

A would-be applications developer who is working on his company's Ecommerce team wrote recently to ask what direction he should pursue next in his IT career. His Email had more than a hint of desperation about it. Anthony (a pseudonym) candidly confessed that each technical hurdle he's jumped has been extremely difficult for him, he felt paralyzed by fear that his co-workers would realize he doesn't know as much about technology as they think he does, and he was frustrated by the fact that he'd shown no innate talent for the one thing he really wants to do -- programming.

But as Anthony described his career path to this point, a vastly different image of him emerged than the one he apparently sees. He started his career in 1985 in the most entry-level of entry-level jobs, as a shift worker in the IT operations group of a major bank. After five years rotating through the positions of tape librarian, print operator, Tandem operator, and IBM mainframe operator, he landed on the help desk of a major retail chain. From there he joined the point-of- sale systems support team and later took on responsibility for mainframe security administration.

In a lateral career move, he left the retailer to join another bank. At this point, Anthony says, he had little enthusiasm for his IT career. He was simply trudging through. But about a year into his new job, he got interested in the Internet, and everything started to turn around.

Using computer-based training modules and videos, he taught himself HTML. Over the course of 12 months, he progressed from someone who had no knowledge of PCs to doing Unix security administration. When an opportunity opened up in the bank's intranet group, he won the job over more than 60 other applicants. He ultimately became the go-to guy for maintaining the entire intranet as well as helping individual departments set up their Web pages.

Despite his self-made success, that's also when the fear, anxiety, and doubt set in. Anthony says his colleagues assumed he knew several programming languages, networking, databases, and Web page design tools. In reality, he explains, he had no formal training in any of these, and he felt he was barely scraping by. He turned to two friends to help him with his learning curve, and over the next 12 months, he learned Linux, set up a LAN in his home office, and developed his own Web site using PHP (an open-source scripting language and interpreter for Linux) and MySQL (an open-source relational database management system).

As a result of his efforts, he was promoted to the bank's Ecommerce division, where he enjoys the respect and admiration of his teammates. And yet, he persists in a belief that he has few career options.

"All the technical walls I've scaled have been hard ones," Anthony writes. "Every time I meet [someone who studied] computer science, I take a backseat to them knowledge-wise. They can scale walls I can't hope to. You'd think that I could pick [any job] I want, but I can't."

Ever notice that "can't" is a four-letter word? Anthony's insistence on underestimating himself is perplexing in light of the way he has consistently taken responsibility for his own training and been rewarded for it. Either he is more talented technically than he believes himself to be, or management sees leadership potential within him that he fails to recognize himself. Either way (or both), he's kind of like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz": He's got the ruby slippers but doesn't realize they'll take him where he wants to go.

Although he believes he can't write his own ticket, in point of fact, based on his experience so far he has a number of IT career options he could pursue:

Business Analyst.

Security Specialist.

Web Architect.

Ecommerce Developer.

While Anthony has made a clear commitment to learning new technology, it doesn't sound as if he has made a real commitment to his career. His further IT career advancement will necessitate more than just acquiring new technical skills.

In the same way that he has been willing to reach out for technical help whenever he's needed it, Anthony now needs to reach out for some mentoring from someone within his IT organization. That may be tough for him to do because he's clearly preoccupied with the notion that he'll be "caught" not knowing what he believes his colleagues think he knows.

It's very possible that Anthony is incorrectly assessing his co- workers' and management's perceptions of him. He'll be much happier at work if he can shed this sense of "being caught."

Anthony should ask for an informal review to find out exactly how his supervisors view his strengths and weaknesses. In all likelihood, this review will uncover a number of positive attributes that he doesn't give himself credit for and instill a new sense of self-confidence. In the context of the review, he should also ask his manager what types opportunities are available to him and inquire about potential mentors who could help him refine his career goals.

And then, with the fork in the road now in sight, he'll have to take it. In that spirit, next week's column will discuss how Anthony could leverage his experience and skills to advance his IT career as a business analyst, security specialist, Web architect or Ecommerce developer.

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