IT careers: How to figure out what’s next

Struggling to navigate a career path in today's complex business environment? Check out this expert advice to find your North Star
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In December 2021, I received a career opportunity to leave my country and the continent of Africa for a much larger office and client base in the Middle East. Based on my own research and advice from others, it seemed like an auspicious opportunity. But I had to make sure I was comfortable with the facts before making a final decision.

Figuring out what you want next in your career can be daunting. There are many factors to consider – your interests, skills, values, experience, timing, family, and even other occupations. Research on its own might not address what your gut feels is the right decision. On the other hand, basing a decision on a gut feeling is less likely to address all possible constraints.

Combining research (including seeking advice) and self-reflection are the two most effective ways to figure out your “next.” I recommend approaching the process in this order: reflect, research, and finally, reflect again. Building upon self-reflection can lead to greater clarity and confidence in your decision.

What does 'next' look like?

Isolating your “next” from your current circumstances and emotions is an essential first step. This will help you acknowledge any limitations in your next opportunity and make an impartial assessment against your current occupation and career objectives.

[ Also read IT careers: 3 tips for working with a recruiter. ]

Sometimes your “next” can mean maintaining your current career or occupation but doing it differently. But you must isolate your “next” from current circumstances that might influence your decision and evaluate each separately.

I often listen to a podcast called Asian Efficiency, which uses a framework of Time, Energy, and Attention (TEA) to reflect objectively on your daily experience. When these three factors are unbalanced, you may feel disconnected from your productivity and how you relate to your career.

In my previous IT role, I was responsible for helping drive digital transformation in my office and across the African network of the audit firm. Driving the transformation meant demonstrating automation that made auditing easier. However, onboarding those who embraced this transformation was bound to conflict with those who did not want change: One group saw the “next” in their careers as an opportunity to apply their expert knowledge to champion specialized automation. The other group might consider a less demanding workplace.

Stick to your brand

Organizations have visions and mission statements that reflect their ideals and help to brand the organization and set it apart from competitors. People are often inspired by ideals and can go to great lengths to defend them. Because I see my occupation as a transaction in which my interests and the organization’s interests should align, I invest time building my own brand, or personality signature, into my work ethic.

Every month, thousands of people across the globe graduate with the same technical skills you have. To stand out, establish your own brand to communicate your values and how you approach work. For example, one of my fundamental values is to give back to society. This was a deliberate consideration when I chose which career and employer best fit and enhanced my brand.

To avoid conflicts between your priorities and career demands, focus on building a brand that closely reflects your personality and values. This can also help guide you as you make decisions about your career.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind when setting up your own brand:

1. Your natural self is your best ally

In today’s fast-paced information age, nobody has the time or the energy to live a double life.

2. Be consistent in your brand

Make it personal. Your brand should be true to who you are to the extent that you feel hurt when you don’t live up to it. Continually explore what you’d like your brand to look like in a few years.

3. Network and grow

Build the right community around you that supports your growth areas.

4. Have a selling angle and own your space

Go beyond your technical skills – build your soft skills and use them to communicate to the world who you are and what you stand for.

5. Build your brand based on who you aspire to be

You don’t necessarily need to focus on your present strengths. Instead, highlight the areas you want to develop.

For instance, if you want to be good at commenting code but have a natural talent for primary coding, choose more tasks or roles related to commenting to build that expertise. Then promote these growing areas as part of your brand when pursuing career opportunities. Give your target career the “aha” moment when people discover your skillset. This keeps them interested in seeing more of your potential.

Research, confront, and consult

After examining your vision for your future and assessing your own personal brand, gather the facts and research your career situation or the job opportunity ahead of you. Then confront the factors draining your time, energy, or attention. And finally, consult with others to gain different perspectives.

When you take these steps and carefully consider what matters to you, you are more likely to make a meaningful move that drives your career forward.

[ Check out essential career advice from 37 award-winning CIOs! Get a variety of insights on leadership, strategy, and career development from IT executives at Mayo Clinic, Dow, Aflac, Liberty Mutual, Nordstrom, and more: Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

Joseph Kachiliko is a CISA-certified IT auditor and data analyst working in a Big Four consulting firm in the Middle East, and a member of the ISACA Emerging Trends Working Group. He uses his voice to help shape technology communities in the Middle East and Africa.