Planning your IT career in a shifting tech landscape can be difficult, especially when your big plans can be wiped like a hard drive. Learning new tech skills and networking are obvious ways to solidify your career. But what about accidental ways that could put your career in a slide? Hidden hazards — silent career killers? Some tech pitfalls may not be obvious.
To tease out notable ways people end up hurting their prospects, we talked to a number of IT pros, recruiters, and developers about how to build a bulletproof career and avoid lesser-known pitfalls. Read on to see how to navigate them.
There's nothing like a truly horrific work situation to bring your career path into focus. The question is whether you'd improve your career by changing jobs — or just hitting the eject button.
"How you deal with unfairness and lack of appreciation will shape your tenacity to keep moving forward," says Box CIO Paul Chapman. "It's easy to dismiss and/or presume the glass is half empty. And all too often I catch people looking to leave a company because they are running away rather than running toward something — anyone can run away."
When your job is at its worse, step back, evaluate what happened — and game out what to do next time, Chapman says. "You should learn more from the negative experiences than the positive ones."
Folding under pressure
According to Arti Venkatesh, senior director of new product management at Sungard AS, showing mental toughness is key — hitting the panic button too quickly can be an IT career red flag. "It's an easy way to get fired," Venkatesh says. "As soon as you show a hint of emotional instability, people will question whether you're trustworthy and capable of keeping it together when it counts."
Building lasting relationships with the people around you is key to developing a successful IT career, says Venkatesh, who warns against the short-term satisfaction of telling your coworkers off: "Dropping an atomic bomb on any professional relationship is a major mistake that can end up hurting your relationship with colleagues and potentially ruin future career opportunities."
Steve Cooper, co-founder of Excella Consulting, frequently sees what he calls "too much rudder and not enough sail" — in other words failing to make a change when a good opening shows up.
He tells the story of a new hire who complained about nearly immediately being handed three junior employees to manage. The newly forged manager — a recent grad — worried he wouldn't have time to develop his tech skills.
"The opportunity to supervise three new technologists and guide their careers is an opportunity that doesn't come in other fields for years," Cooper says. "And if learning a new language is valuable, imagine how valuable learning team leadership is. His grip on the technology-skills rudder was so tight that he didn't recognize the awesome power of the leadership wind that was ready to blow his career in a whole new, even more valuable direction."
Eventually, says Cooper, he saw the benefits of changing direction: "He's now a 23-year-old technology team leader on a major software development initiative."
Skipping social events
The after-work happy hour or office celebration may not be where you shine. But as your career matures, you may need to make the rounds at least once in a while.
"Not everyone loves office social gatherings, and that's fine," says Venkatesh, "but the higher up the professional ladder you go, the more you'll be expected to at least make an appearance at some. In many companies, habitually skipping these events can signal that you're not interested in building relationships with colleagues, and can even damage your career."
There may also be hidden benefits to hanging out with peers. "Business is a team sport," says Mike Grandinetti, CMO and CSO of IT data management company Reduxio. "Being part of a valued, trusted network of like-minded, talented professionals is the best way to get access to new professional opportunities."
Here's another networking pro tip: If you're meeting up only with peers and all your relationships are lateral ones, you may not be getting as much benefit as you think. An IT career benefits from a mix of peers and mentors.
"Having consistent communication, as well as sharing and listening to others' experiences is essential," Venkatesh says. "Another mistake that's less obvious is not networking with the right group of professionals. It's important to network with people who have experience in your area of interest, and professionals who hold more senior positions, so they can offer career advice or coaching."
Shortchanging your compensation
When job hunting, some IT pros miss out on the value of benefits when considering the overall compensation. Consider perks like commute and equipment assistance, free dinners or a food budget, according to Excella's Cooper.
"Many employees neglect to monetize the benefits, perks, and extras that their employers give," Cooper says. "These can add up to $5-10k per year, and yet employees still consider offers from companies without these items because they're being promised $3k extra in salary."
Not knowing your worth
Have you been in your IT job for more than five years? If so, you're probably not getting the compensation you deserve, says David Collins, an IT branch manager at staffing firm the Addison Group.
"IT professionals are in high demand — it's a candidate's market out there," Collins says. "And you should know that it's much easier for employers to retain a current employee rather than hire and train a new one. Get educated on current salaries for your position in the marketplace and how direct competitors are compensating employees."
Failing to understand the business
More than one of our IT pros say those in the tech sector hurt their careers by failing to learn the basic principles of the business they work for.
"It's critical to understand how what you do on a day-to-day basis affects the entire [company]," says Matt Eventoff, who teaches communication skills at Princeton Public Speaking. "How does it advance the enterprise's goals? How does the actual business function and how does what you, or what your team does, impact it?"
Forgetting who's writing the checks
Another business-related tech pitfall: a lack of focus on the customer. And in some cases, the customer might not be who you think it is.
"Every IT job has a business stakeholder sponsoring it," Cooper says. "Yet often IT professionals neglect to cultivate their relationship with that check-writer, who probably works in a different building, a different division, or even a different hemisphere. If you can get the business to value you — or even know you — in addition to being a star with the technology division, you're going places quickly."
Trouble with non-tech staff
IT folks too frequently can't easily express their plans for new tech spends, or allocating resources or people, says Eventoff.
"I've had the opportunity to work with IT professionals at many different levels, from many, different disciplines," Eventoff says. "If you're speaking to someone who doesn't get deep into IT, it's crucial that you not only know what's important to that person, but how does what you're suggesting impact that person, or the enterprise."
Make sure you can explain yourself with clarity and precision, Eventoff says. "Will they 'get it' right away? This is a fairly easy one to pressure test — take something you're working on that's important, find a colleague who is not in IT, and explain it. If they get it, you're on the right track."
Staying in your comfort zone
Some IT pros never explore territory outside of technology. "You have to be able to reinvent yourself and shift from being more tactical and task-driven to being more social and participative," Box's Chapman says. "A failure to make this shift will end up with you hitting your IT career ceiling."
"In any organization there are individuals who are working on different subject areas. Meet them," Eventoff says. "Help them with technology-related questions and — if you have any time — offer to help them when they need it. Having colleagues outside of your own area that can vouch for you can only help."
Lack of interpersonal skills
Recruiting software provider iCIMS recently released a report on soft skills that surveyed 400 human resources and recruiting professionals. Those hiring deemed soft skills in IT more valued than hard skills by 18 percent.
"As a boss, I'd estimate that 90 percent of our performance issues involve interpersonal weaknesses, and most of those aren't an ability deficit," says Excella's Cooper. "It's simply that the employee doesn't realize the effect he's having on his teammates or stakeholders — in spite of hearing this feedback in many forms. The true value of an IT professional is a powerfully lethal combination of deep technology expertise and the human ability to feel and articulate the impact of the solution being created. When an employer recognizes this combination in an individual, they'll reward it handsomely."
Failing to adapt
Steven Boyd, a mainframe programmer at hybrid IT service firm Ensono, says the willingness to change can make or break a team.
"The environment can be stressful and no one wants to work with someone who doesn't understand the importance of camaraderie and growth," Boyd says. "Technology is constantly changing, and while technical skills are valuable, soft skills are much more noteworthy to businesses in the long run. Technology grows over time as we do because a large part of technology is adaptability. These are not skills locked to being a programmer or IT professional yet are essential to a technician's career."
Pursuing post-grad education without focus
Asked about the value of post-grad education, nearly every IT pro interviewed said the same thing: It's not worth the money unless you're absolutely sure why you're doing it and what your return on investment will be.
"If you're just pursuing post-grad to increase earning potential, you should do some research to confirm that it will materialize," says Josh Collins, a former senior technology manager at Bank of America and now tech architect at Janeiro Digital. "Many employers and industries value experience over education. Have a good picture of that before investing."
Wandering away from a training opportunity
Abandoning a company that's actually helping boost your career with training is the career-killing flipside of staying too long in a job without a clear career trajectory.
About two thirds of those in computer programming and IT say they need ongoing training and skills development to get ahead, according to a 2016 Pew study.
"If you find an organization that invests in your growth take advantage of it," says Janeiro's Collins. "Because many do not. Whether training or stretch-goal projects, these are ways to increase your long-term skills and value and challenge yourself in a meaningful way."
Not being Zen
So while we've identified that ongoing training and developing technical skills is essential to growing your career, there's a way to take the next step up, and it may seem unexpected.
"A key trait to help your career is not just to put in the sweat equity of being technical and obtaining domain expertise, but also be willing to give up on that knowledge, to give up being the expert," says Box's Chapman. "The path forward can only be achieved by the willingness to let go and give up in order to focus on obtaining those next set of experiences."
Thinking you made it
Some mistakes can hide under career successes, says Jen Doran, program manager at IT staffing firm TEKsystems. She frequently sees people climb the corporate ladder then abruptly stop networking.
"Time and effort was put into placing a particular person in a particular role," she says, "so it's important to keep networking at events and on social platforms to continue to grow your network even after you've been successfully placed."
Not asking for stretch assignments
Another ladder-climbing mistake Doran sees occurs when tech workers nail the job they want, but then stop challenging themselves.
"IT professionals should go beyond what's in their job description and ask for exposure to other assignments," she says. "We specialize in placing IT candidates and services in areas where their tactical skills are needed, but also where they'll have the opportunity to begin understanding the business outside of their immediate tasks. This motivates IT professionals to get out of their comfort zones and expose themselves to new ideas and people, as well as critical thinking and problem solving, which are all beneficial to the employee and the team in general."
Looking too far ahead
When you're planning ahead, don't drive yourself crazy looking too far out, says Arti Sungard's Venkatesh. If your road map stretches out beyond two years, she says, you've gone too far.