Quantifying the return on investment when it comes to your career can be as straightforward as punching numbers into a calculator. But numbers are not enough, says Lisa Whaley, a former IBM vice president who turned her B.S. from the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) into a lucrative 22-year career with the technology giant. She said she was successful, in part, because she made regular common sense assessments along the way.
“The original plan was to work for a few years then go to law school or get my MBA,” said Whaley, author of Reclaiming My Soul From The Lost and Found a story of her journey from a successful executive to a woman in despair trying to find happiness. “Every time I’d get to that point – where I thought I needed more training or such – I would get a promotion or I was working on some great project. So I never did it, but I still did well. I realized that had I stopped to get the MBA, it would not have brought me anything at the company.”
Whaley admits that her path is not going to work for everyone, but taking regular inventory of your skills set, level of experience, education and time already on the job can help you figure out whether you are effectively getting the most bang for your buck. In other words, look carefully before you leap. Getting an advanced degree costs time and money. And while it is a prerequisite in some fields, lesser training requires less commitment. Whatever you do, experts say, choose carefully. There are a number of high-level business courses and certifications to be had in this and that, but they will not necessarily guarantee a move up the rung.
Joe Santana, a New York-based consultant and author of Manage I.T. said IT professionals should not leave this up to a gut feeling. Write it all down. Putting it on paper makes things clearer than you might think. It can help you figure out where to spend your and your company’s time and money. “Make sure that the training you are getting is not going to be obsolete when you finish your education,” said Santana, who gives advice to senior level IT executives and professionals. “Do your homework. It takes some work in the beginning, but find out where the market is going before you make a move.”
According to recent IT industry reports, the more specific your knowledge, the better off you will be in the workforce. “Employers are once again investing in onshore applications development skills, notwithstanding their desire to offshore some applications and business processes,” said David Foote, founder, president and chief research officer for Foote Partners LLC, the New Canaan, Conn.-based IT research consultancy. “They’re demanding more industry-specific experience to go with tech skills mastery, and even systems-specific solutions experience within an industry, which is a fairly new development on the scale that we’ve been seeing it.”
According to the Robert Half Technology Index and Skills Report released in March, networking is the big specialty now and knowledge of Microsoft Windows (NT/2000/XP) administration skills is in high demand. The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company, which provides IT professionals to organizations, found that 20 percent of 1,400 CIOs interviewed nationwide were looking for professionals with knowledge in networking specialties. Another 14 percent said Internet/intranet development was needed to meet their needs, while another 13 percent said help desk end-user support and application development was in demand. But the IT professional does not live by technology alone. There is a human side to getting ahead in IT. Experts say you’ve got to network with the people and mine the culture, too.
”The education gives you credibility, but you have to look at other things such as personal energy, developing relationships and understanding how the world around you works,” said Steven Katz, author of Lion Taming: Working Successfully with Leaders, Bosses and Other Tough Customers “Then you have to decide if you are using what you know to the best of your ability. You have to think about what have you done to differentiate yourself.”
Whaley is more concrete in her assessment. ”You should at least know what … companies are out there that cater to your area of knowledge,” she said. “Go to the company’s website employment page. Find out what they are looking for. Are they asking for an MBA, certification, or advance degree? Find out what the market is paying, use the Internet and talk to people who are where you want to be or are in those companies already. ”
Access might be easier for the college student, but for those already on the job, the environment can dictate your next move, said Scott Brown, career counselor and author of “The Job Search Handbook” “It can be as easy as offering to take someone you admire to lunch,” Brown said. “But pay attention to the culture. Is that acceptable? If it is, be genuinely interested. This is where your people skills come in. Unfortunately, there is no certification for social skills.”
Santana adds that there are executives out there who do want to help their subordinates. In fact, he said, seeking out good managers should be part of your checklist throughout your career. “People seldom consider striving to work with the manager who can contribute to their growth,” Santana said. “That should be considered in the big picture along with getting additional training, a compensation package, the company’s standing and your level of experience.”
Unfortunately, Whaley, whose Connecticut-based firm provides life coaching, motivational speaking and customized workshops for companies, said she found a shortage of the each-one-teach-one philosophy when she was an executive. “As African Americans, it’s really important for us to support each other,” she said. “In my experience sometimes black professionals in our own companies can help us but they don’t. Some have that attitude, `Well, I got mine, and you should get there the best way you can.’ We are sometimes oversensitive about looking like we are favoring anyone. Trust me, white males are doing it and they are not worried about how it looks.”
In terms of where to channel your resources for maximum career growth, the business sector still leads in hiring IT staff, according to Robert Half Technology. For example, 23 percent of CIOs in the finance, insurance and real estate industries plan to expand their IT departments, another eight percent expect to cut staff. Nineteen percent said they expect to add employees and they did not project heavy layoffs. But Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology, warns that while businesses are hiring, many are using IT professionals to handle temporary, short-term assignments. Even so, there are specific areas where growth is spurting – offering more security for those who seek it. ”As the economy begins to improve and organizations expand again, they will be hiring business services firms, such as advertising agencies and data-processing companies for support,” Lee said. “This influx of new work is prompting business services firms to add technology staff, particularly database specialists who can manage vital customer information.”
Brown, whose background includes recruiting, agrees that jobs in infrastructure, corporate networking and improving technology for the Internet are the next growth areas. But he added that there is also some growth in the programming arena now that many companies are seeing that outsourcing does not work for everyone. If you choose jobs in this area, move to positions that cannot be done from a third-world country, he said. “The manufacturing jobs are going to China and the programming jobs are going to India, but the jobs that require cultural and political knowledge of the states, are staying in the states,” Brown said. “Choose jobs that integrate some customer service. They seem to have better staying power.”