Be in the world, find a mentor

I like to ask my new employees: "Why are you working in IT?" The typical answer is: "I like technology, and I want to be CTO." This is a valid reason to work in any field; you like what you do, and you want to make it to the top. Speaking from experience, I can tell you a few things you can do along the way to enhance your career and give yourself a competitive advantage over your rivals. My advice is to be worldly, find a mentor, and develop your communication skills.

The worst thing about being a "techie" is that everyone outside the field thinks that you are some kind of freaky wizard who magically fixes things and talks in phrases that no one can understand. That is an image that comes with the territory. To that I say, be worldly. You should familiarise yourself with the rest of the departments that make up your company. The true tech leader is not confined to the realm of technology.

At my second job, I developed an initiative that I knew would save the company money. But being a tech guy, I knew this was going to be a very hard sell to the powers that be. I had to put my idea into language and terms that the financial department would understand. Before presenting my idea, I made sure I interacted with all the people in finance. And I kept my eyes, ears, and mind open at all times. In the end, my plan was accepted, and we replaced the entire technical infrastructure, which resulted in huge savings for the company.

No matter what you think, you don't know everything. Find yourself a mentor. Your mentor should not be the guy in the next cube who can recite every line from the Star Wars trilogy. Your mentor should be wise and have the kind of knowledge that only comes from years of experience. S/he will help you learn from both positive and negative experiences. A mentor will advise you, but not give away the answers. You should mimic the teaching and managing styles of your mentor, but spice them up to make them your own in such a way that puts your own personality in them.

My first job was at a startup company. I was 25, and I was the entire technology department. I made all the decisions and implemented all my own ideas; I was king of my own little technology world. I then moved on to a 110-year-old company with a tech team that had been in place for more than 30 years. The head of the IT department was a wise old owl. I went from doing everything my way to learning how to do everything right. He taught me that you can't take shortcuts when it comes to learning, and that it takes time to develop and hone your leadership and communication skills. One should take seriously the old adage that you learn something new every day.

To many people in IT, adding a smiley face at the end of your e-mail is considered effective communication. Communication is more than smiley faces; it is presenting fresh and innovative ideas and motivating your team to perform at peak levels. If your style of communication is along the lines of "Rah! Rah! We're the greatest!" then go with it. But good communication doesn't have to be a love fest. I prefer to influence my team one-on-one rather than as a group. My team knows that I'm always open to discussion and will entertain any ideas for improving the department.

As CTO, I try to pass what I have learnt on to my staff. I make sure my staff knows what's happening throughout the company, I strive to be a mentor, and I take a personal approach to communication.

Brian Farrey is the CTO of Monster.com.

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