IT careers: What makes a beginner stand out to the CIO

Young IT talent can't skate by on tech prowess alone. Eight CIOs share their take on the skills that impress
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For young IT talent, there’s a lot to love about a career in technology. The promises of rewards are enticing, as businesses compete to hire the best IT talent to solve complex problems. But these days, a degree alone isn’t going to cut it. Sure, it may get you hired, but if you want to get noticed by the boss, you’ll need to bring more to the table than technical skills.

We asked eight CIOs to share the traits and skills that they value most on their IT teams. Not one of them mentioned in-depth technical training or special certificates. Instead, these CIOs discussed people who were exceptional team players, or who raised their hands for a special assignment, or who reached out to help someone below them – those were the folks who stood out to management. Dive in for more ways to stand out among your IT peers – and earn the rewards. 


“‘Always bring back more than your boss asks you for.’ One of my supervisors said this to me when I was a junior engineer, and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s something that I have tried to do throughout my entire career: Deliver above and beyond by bringing back more than my boss asked me for.” - Kevin Neifert, CIO, Raytheon

Be a team player

“The biggest thing you can do early in your career to stand out is to be seen as an exceptional team player. There’s very little that loners can accomplish in the IT field now. Being an exceptional team player brings you the reputation of being able to contribute individually, contributing to the talents of the team, and making sure the team’s goals and the team’s mission come before individual aspiration. We’re looking to succeed as an organization, as a team. Those people who are exceptional team players stand out as the ones who can serve as leaders and role models for the rest of the enterprise.” - Jeffrey Stovall, CIO, City of Charlotte

Think before you talk

"Don’t act like or try to be the smartest person in the room – everyone has a role and something to contribute."
“Don’t just talk without something to contribute. Be thoughtful, logical, and considerate in your questions and comments. Be curious, inquisitive, and focus on constantly learning while always looking for ways or things to improve. Don’t act like or try to be the smartest person in the room – everyone has a role and something to contribute.

Maturity can really grab leadership’s attention, particularly in someone early in their career. Sonic, like most companies, looks to promote from within. It’s a win-win for both the company and the associate. It’s a no-brainer when you can provide someone opportunity to grow and continue their career with your organization. In order to step up and take advantage of these opportunities, maturity and flexibility are key.” - Chris Maritato, CIO, Sonic Automotive

Solve a business problem, unprompted

“Our president sent out an email that mentioned he thought we were losing some loans we should be getting, and he wanted to know why. On his own, one of our developers created this report that tapped into some public databases that the business didn’t even know existed. He brought it to me and said, ‘I can show you where those loans went.’ I took him straight to the president’s office with me.” - Tim Elkins, CIO, PrimeLending

Volunteer for special projects

"Young talent must master their current role with excellence, but also bring forward innovative ideas for transforming, automating, or even eliminating the work they’re doing."
“The thing that distinguishes the people I see coming up through the ranks is their ability to communicate. For the most part, people are graduating with a lot of intellect, and it’s kind of a level playing field in that regard. What makes people stand out is their EQ, or emotional intelligence –knowing the customer, communicating well, speaking in a language that’s appropriate for the audience.

Pragmatically, young talent must master their current role with excellence, but also bring forward innovative ideas for transforming, automating, or even eliminating the work they’re doing. I look for people who want to volunteer to do special projects, because folks that are just filling a job tend to get lost – the work just happens. When people have passion, energy, and thoughtful creativity that says, 'I want to try to bring something new here,' those are the folks that stand out.” - Tom Miller, CIO, Anthem

[ Want to develop your EQ? Read our related article: Top soft skills for IT leaders and how to master them. ]

Support others throughout the team

“It doesn’t matter how hard you work; it matters what results you get. Understand what your boss wants and needs, what the organization wants and needs, and work on those. It’s not about your own agenda, it’s about their agenda. If you are savvy, and smart, and have good emotional intelligence, then you just have to step up and deliver. No matter what role you’re in, you always are there to support the people above you and below you. My job is to develop my team, enhance their skills to help them shine, and do the same for people above me. You can’t be in it for yourself. You have to be in it for the people that you’re supporting.” - Serena Sacks, CIO, Fulton County Schools

Get out of the safety zone

“I think three things stand out. One, you’ve got to be willing to take risks. You can’t have everything handed to you in the safe zone. If that’s the case, you’re not really separating yourself from the pack. Two, take the roles that nobody else wants, and you’ll get a bargaining chip for the future. Take on a stretch assignment, because it’ll help you expand your skill set. Third, while trying to stand out, make sure that you’re a team player. Some of the most successful people I’ve worked with shine on their own when necessary but stand out as team players.” - Vish Narendra, CIO, Graphic Packaging International

Demonstrate resilience

“Deliver high-quality work in whatever capacity you can. Be proactive and be resilient, especially early on. Not everything is going to go your way throughout your career. But having that resilience is going to help you to bounce back and maintain your passion throughout your career’s ups and downs.” - Ben McKeeby, CIO, Grady Health System

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Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.