The #1 way to advance your IT career: CIOs speak

What's the top thing IT professionals can do to get to the next level at work? Apply this practical advice
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For people in tech careers, the path forward can be a little ambiguous. Technology keeps evolving and digital business practices are rapidly displacing traditional roles and processes. For instance, AI is replacing skillsets that some people have developed for years, while also opening up entirely new roles. So, how do you advance your career when it isn’t clear what your career, your business, or your industry will look like five years from now? 

Expectations for IT leadership skills continue to evolve, as well. With the rise of agile approaches and cross-functional teams, for example, high emotional intelligence and communication skills have never been in more demand.

[ Working on your emotional intelligence? Learn the behaviors to avoid as you build your EQ: 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

According to the IT leaders we spoke with, while the future is unknown, flexibility is key. Career advancement also takes an ownership mindset and the willingness to invest in yourself. If you’re serious about climbing the ladder in IT, consider these tips from the people who do the promoting. 

Model positivity, openness, and adaptability 

Chris Fielding, CIO, Sungard Availability Services (Sungard AS): “One characteristic I look for and actively promote is being a good team player. I want working environments to be enjoyable, and in order to do that, I need people who have a positive, flexible approach, and who are prepared to contribute ideas, participate in discussions, and take the lead as required. 

Flexibility is important because it allows teams to explore many options and ideas. By being adaptive, an individual can ultimately solve support issues, development problems, and test scenarios. Another aspect of a good team player is someone who not only contributes ideas, but also appreciates input. Ideas can always change, be added to or dropped, and I look to promote employees who understand we need to work as a team to move the best ideas forward. Flexibility and positivity within the team are key to ensure environments remain open and honest. The more senior the role, the more important it is to have positive, open discussions.

I look for leaders who prefer to take a collaborative approach to leadership. They give their teams the space to grow and develop but have the knowledge to jump in and offer assistance if needed. The key to this approach is being able to spot when help is required, and this usually involves the leader setting up a process to help them identify when their input is needed. When a good process is set up, the early indicators of issues are easier to identify because information will be interpreted in the same way, regardless of the project. There are times when a leader needs to take a direct management approach, but when you’re working with skilled professionals in the IT environment, the need for such a style should be the exception rather than the rule.” 

Don’t lose sight of the work at hand

Mike Kelly, CIO, Red Hat: “For me, the number one thing someone in IT can do to advance their career is focus on doing the work they have or are currently engaged in versus positioning themselves for work to come. Also, know that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”

Own your career advancement – even if it takes weekends

Jason James, CIO, Optima Healthcare Solutions: “IT professionals need to understand that they are ultimately in charge of their career advancement. Unfortunately, everything you need to do to grow your career doesn’t always happen during regular business hours. In fact, you may have to spend nights learning more about your industry or business; some weekends may be spent learning about an emerging technology; or you may have to spend evenings networking with your industry peers. Investing in yourself always pays off.

"Frankly, anyone can find and report issues. Go the extra mile and own it. "

From an IT leadership perspective, the one quality that can lead to upward momentum is ownership of a problem. All too often, people report issues and move on. Perhaps they feel that reporting the issue was enough to let management know they are paying attention and participating. But, frankly, anyone can find and report issues. Go the extra mile and own it. Dig deeper into understanding issues and determining who is impacted. Then take steps to propose a solution, communicate with the impacted party, and follow it through to completion. Ownership is a key foundation of leadership. Those who show they own a solution are often given greater responsibilities in projects or departments.”

Focus on the information more than the technology

Deborah Gelch, CIO, Curry College: “For most of my career, the emphasis of IT has been on the ‘technology’ part of the name, but in this day of digitalization, the emphasis has dramatically shifted to 'information.’ Digital business is disrupting our industry and IT professionals who want to advance their careers need to develop their understanding of the digital business technology platform and how their function of IT plays a role. IT professionals will not only be expected to deliver a platform for the business to make data-driven decisions but also expected to utilize data in their own functional role.

IT professionals who can build models that demonstrate the ability to analyze data and make informed recommendations are invaluable. These skills have become the new competency for all professionals and incorporating analytics in your own skillset will be a savvy career move.

"Incorporating analytics in your own skillset will be a savvy career move."

Be a driver of the business in your IT leadership role. No matter where you fit in the IT structure, you can distinguish yourself by connecting your role within IT with the business. This can be done by being a collaborator who adds value to your work rather than an order taker. IT professionals can drive business by refocusing resources away from re-engineering processes that produce marginal return into data-exploiting work that bubbles up data to key decision makers. IT leaders can be the enablers of this change and provide the platform and example of how data-driven decisions can be made at all levels and areas of the organization. Leaders who recognize that the information portion of the IT name has become the ‘differentiator and win’ technology and those IT leaders who keep an eye on the business will stand out and find upward momentum within IT and long-term career benefits.”

Act like you own the place

Mike Duensing, CTO and EVP engineering, Skuid: “The advice I give for career advancement is simple. For everything you think, say, and do, consider this is your own business, using your own money. This has the inherent impact of creating a mindset that you are not just an employee waiting to be told what to do, or one trying to figure out how to be ‘relevant,’ or someone afraid to take risks. You also care about optimizing the resources available to you. The senior leaders of the company think this way, and so should you. It is detrimental to see your self as having just an ‘IT job.’ 

Thinking like a business owner gives you a laser focus on advancing the business within the context of your IT role. You will find yourself brainstorming on ideas, trying new approaches, engaging with cross-functional groups, researching, and other types of activities to find solutions to problems. By taking the initiative to articulate your input with your leadership team and in meetings, and even coming up with prototypes, you will be seen both as a thought leader and someone who gets things done that are aligned with business goals. The natural consequence of this will be that you will be sought out to plan and help drive key projects, and have the opportunity to advance. Career advancement will be a natural by-product of an ‘owner mindset.’ And, you will also have more enjoyment with your work knowing that you are making an impact.”

[ Stuck in a rut? Read Is your IT career stalled? 7 tips to get back on track. ]

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.