What Color Is Your Parachute? 2017: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers

The Seven Habits of Successful IT Professionals

February 8, 2017 by Rich Arden

We are living in a fast-paced changing world. The career field in information technology is extremely dynamic. It’s a tough market out there.  IT professionals are facing ever bigger challenges on daily bases, - searching for new jobs, safeguarding current positions, acquiring new skills, keeping up with business and management expectations, fighting layoff, getting promotions, advancing career growth, and more. An essential approach to achieving career goals is to adapt effective work habits. Once you cultivated such habits, you could gain the exceptional competitive edge in this highly competitive battleground. Now you need to check out the seven habits of successful professionals and learn how to succeed in IT careers.

1. Stay on focus

There are so many things in IT.  It’s hard to succeed if you try to know everything.  Focus on a few key skills and technologies and become really good on them.  Successful IT professionals are most likely specialists rather than generalists. Once you get to know various aspects of IT, you need to pick up an area and put your focus on it. Your focus could be technical function oriented or vendor technology oriented. For example, are you interested in database, programming, or network security? do you want to be a strong player in Oracle, Microsoft, EMC, or Tableau? Reflect you mind to find out what is your interest and where is your confidence. Do you want to be the superhero fix-all help desk supporter? How about the Oracle RAC database administrator to master the enterprise data? Should you be the Microsoft SSIS ETL expert? Remember, focus means being very specific.

2. Be a quick (and right) learner

New technologies and developments emerge everyday in IT industry.  Successful IT professionals are aware of the trends and changes, and keep themselves up to date.  Successful IT professionals learn new knowledge and skills quickly and effectively. Being a quick learner also means that you need to learn the right things in the right time. Always follow the tech trends in both the industry and your workplace. It is even more important to be sensitive to the tech changes in the workplace. You got to be aware of the business and management plans, from which you may anticipate changes in the technical perspective. For example, if your organization plans to upgrade the customer relationship management (CRM) system powered by Oracle Siebel Call Center, you would want to learn Siebel OpenUI which is most likely to be the core components of the upgrade. By learning the next things, you are ahead of others and thus gain the advantage of technical mastery.

3. Have a long term career plan

It’s so important to plan your career to reach the full potential.  Decide which path you go - technical or management, which area  you stay - database, network, systems, ERP, Java, .NET, etc.  Make a plan and execute it. For example, you might have started the IT career in help desk or technical support; but ask yourself, is this your career for the next 5 years, 10 years? Even if you love your current position, you still need to evaluate your career plan objectively. Consider both technical and financial perspectives. For example, you can build tremendous experience in helpdesk support and become a fix-everything superhero. Everyone in your company loves you for you are on call to fix their troubles. But no one wants to pay you big money for that position. For the same work hours, you will be paid forever less than the database administrator (DBA) or information security officer (ISO). The key to career planning is to assess your current position: is it a step stone to step and pass, or is it a vehicle to drive you all the way to the top? 

4. See the big picture

In an IT project, one may only work on a isolated part, i.e., code a component.  Successful IT professionals are not satisfied by completing assignment, they always want to see the big picture - whole scope of the project, and find out what roles they play in the project, what they can do to make more contributions, and learn most from the project. Driven by the concept of system integration and consolidation, IT projects become ever larger in scope. A large scope project usually require a team in different expertise working only in a specific area. The problem here to individual IT workers is that they often lose sense of systemic structure of the project. To overcome it, you must intentionally learn, discover, and understand the big picture of the project as much as possible. You should see how everything is put together from front end web design to middle tier MVC to the backend data logic. You should also know the budget of the system and the business strategy behind it. Seeing a big picture will help you gain in-depth knowledge, which transforms to influence, power, and control on the project.  

5. Acquire business knowledge

Successful IT professionals not only master technical skills such as programming, but also well understand the business that they serve.  They have deep knowledge of the industry and business logic. They understand customer requirements from inside out. Gaining business knowledge is not only required to quasi IT pros such as analyst, but also advantageous for pure techies. Why you should get business knowledge? First, it is really easy; much much easier than C# programming. Second, not many IT pros are interested in it. It is simply an outdated  bias in IT: anything tech is gold; anything less-tech is junk. But if you have it, it may save your job. Here's a real story: I was hired as a consultant to help a company's IT consolidation and re-org. We had to shrink IT and cut off a bunch of developers. For whom we should keep and for whom we let go? They were all good, - experienced, skillful, and professional. That was a tough choice. In the end, we decided to keep developers who demonstrated both technical expertise and business knowledge.   

6. Be a communicative team player

Successful IT professionals know how to work with others to get job done.  They communicate with team members and management staff effectively.  They constantly improve their personal skills and leadership skills. Once upon a time, or many many years ago, an IT professional could work as a lone wolf. A systems administrator (SA) or database administrator (DBA) might stay in server rooms all day long without interacting with other workers. They were safe and sound as long as the servers were connected and the systems were running. Things have changed then. Today the boundary between IT and business is rather blur. IT as a service provider cannot hide itself anymore. Therefore, an IT worker must tread all people relevant to the overall system (both builders and users) as team members and communicate effectively with them. Especially, business users might be picky and hard to satisfy. Even if you cannot fulfill their unreasonable desires all the time, you can still calm and please them by effective communications. No matter where you work, always make friends and save the team.

7. Keep an eye on new opportunities

IT professionals work in a dynamic and changing environment. There are always new opportunities which offer greater potentials for career growth.  Keep an eye on them and be ready to jump onto it when you encounter one that meets your career growth needs. The key to finding a new opportunity is to network with people both inside and outside of your organization. The ability of people network often could be more valuable than the skills of real network (cables and routers). Here I give you two examples. Jack was a business analyst working in a California state agency, but he wanted to become a real IT pro and make more money. When a consulting firm had a team onsite to develop a new application system, Jack actively participated and offered valuable inputs in business functionality and interface design. More importantly, he built a good relationship with these consultants. After the project, the consulting firm hired Jack for a web development position with a salary almost doubling his state paycheck. Another example is in the opposite direction. Mary, an IT consultant, was tired of frequent traveling and heavy workload; she wanted to switch to an easy and secure state job. When she was contracted to work for a state agency, she made friends with the state people who provided her with job openings information there. With help from her state friends, Mary got a senior software systems specialist position providing nice salary and excellent benefits.

Career success means a lot to each of us, - personal fulfillment, job satisfaction, professional achievement, and financial freedom. I'd suggest you to read, remember, and comprehend the seven habits of for successful IT professionals,  then you too can reach your full potentials in IT. Why seven? - because it's a lucky number!  Seriously, I believe these seven habits are all we need. There are other more detailed characteristics that can be embraced into these seven dimensions. If you keep good, consistent intentions for cultivating and practicing these seven habits in daily jobs, you are for sure moving to the right direction. 

Update date: 2/8/2017. First published on August 18, 2006