IT lifers who see promotions and bleeding-edge projects handed to their colleagues may end up telling themselves it's just a fluke, when in fact, their career path is stalling. And while it pays to fight for good opportunities rather than take flight from a problem, being in denial about your career can hurt your chance to make a correction.
Letting skills go stale, grinding it out in an unrewarding role and sticking around for the money are all career rut warning signs made worse by denying what may be obvious to those around you.
If you feel like you're on autopilot, it may be time to pull your career out of a tailspin.
'I'm still in the loop'
When you're no longer the go-to problem solver at your gig, it may be a warning sign that your career is slipping.
"Rationalization prevents you from getting real feedback," says Dave Denaro, vice president of Keystone Associates. "It also prevents you from becoming more adept at asking for feedback."
The remedy is to ask for input right after the next plum assignment is handed to someone else, Denaro says. "Use that time as a learning opportunity, not a session to complain. Find out what's preventing you from getting the challenging, developmental work you want. Once you take action to address the feedback and close the gap, make sure your manager knows you took the action precisely to be considered for key projects once again."
Denaro describes professional growth as a feedback loop. "You do something you have never done, or struggle with, then you get feedback to learn how to do better or optimize the skill. Then repeat."
'My skills are in demand'
John Barrett, partner with executive search firm ON Partners, points out the much-discussed tech skills gap of open positions and the small pool of people qualified to fill them. Yet this imbalance works in your favor only if you're in a position to take advantage of it.
"Most IT workers should be expanding or changing their roles or responsibilities every three years or so," Barrett says. "Staying in the same job or working on the same projects for much longer than that and you risk becoming obsolete before you know what's happened. This is especially true as employees get older, when it's easier to become complacent, pigeonholed and stuck in a rut. This is when employees need to step up and be more persistent about seeking new job challenges."
Ask yourself how many recruiter messages you've received recently, says Joe Kotlinski, partner in talent acquisition firm WinterWyman's technology division.
"If your answer is, 'I can't remember the last time a recruiter called me,' then you might need to make some changes," he says. "If you're not getting a lot of messages, it doesn't mean you're a bad person, it just means your skill set and experience aren't in demand. Being honest with yourself and truthfully — and maybe painfully — assessing and acknowledging your career situation is a great first step."
'It's my industry that's failing'
Sometimes career setbacks are paired with a feeling that the market itself is at fault, when in fact, it's time to look inward, says Susan Ferebee, information technology professor at Purdue University Global.
"It's hard to be in IT and rationalize by saying that the industry itself is stalling — it's ever growing and changing," Ferebee says. "IT has many avenues to explore for career growth. IT professionals can add certifications or branch into a new domain with further education or on-the-job training. The rationalization that it takes too much effort to continue growing is futile in the IT field — continued growth and learning is necessary even if someone remains in the same position. The field is dynamic and fluid, demanding the growth of all employees."
'I'm up to speed'
CTO Ron Rasmussen of Xactly says a common red flag is when you find yourself coming across industry terms and new technology that's unfamiliar.
"This suggests that they aren't staying in-the-know with industry news and related jargon," Rasmussen says. "If you're not actively joining LinkedIn groups, following industry news in Twitter, connecting with peers, and going to conferences, you're likely to fall behind, or, at best, be a late adopter of the latest tech trends. By definition, if you embrace the status quo you're hurting your career. Because of the pace of innovation, you'll be obsolete in a few years. You need to take technology risks. You're always making the best decisions you can with imperfect information. Be willing to make mistakes and correct them."
IT pros hurt their chances for success by thinking their institutional knowledge can't be replaced, says Kathleen Hyde, chair of cybersecurity programs at Champlain College Online.
"Have you ever heard someone say, 'I'm the best at what I do,' or 'This skill will always be needed?' While it's OK to question new technology, it's another to dismiss it as a fad. Identifying oneself as old-school is similar to describing yourself as comfortable," she says.
Hyde also warns that people who find themselves saying they're comfortable may actually be right, but it's not ideal if you're trying to keep moving forward.
"There's a certain amount of normalcy that being comfortable in your career provides," she says, "but sharing the fact that you're comfortable with coworkers and others isn't going to help you maintain your current position or advance in your career. Comfortable implies that you're happy in your current role and not necessarily up for any challenges. It also allows people to believe that any ask will be met with 'no' for an answer. By the time you realize you're uncomfortable being comfortable — in other words, you're once again looking for the challenge that brought you to and encouraged your love in IT — it may be too late."
'I can coast to retirement'
Hyde says that IT pros who are counting down the days to logging off for good may be rudely awakened by sudden career changes that are out of their control.
"While it may be true that retirement is in the near future," Hyde says, "this really is just an excuse to allow yourself to become complacent. The problem with this rationalization is that organizations no longer guarantee positions. What happens if you're downsized? Or your organization is bought out and you have to look for a new position? My question then is, 'How will your resume stack up?'"
'The perks are worth it'
Julia Kanouse, CEO of the Illinois Technology Association, says some IT pros stay too long in one position and tell themselves the benefits outweigh the risks.
"They stay in a role that no longer feels right and find excuses for staying, like an equity stake — or deep industry experience," Kanouse says. "You slow down your skill development. Especially in technology, it's important to stay on top of the latest tech stacks, and development processes. If you find yourself unmotivated to introduce new ideas and drive innovation forward in your organization, no matter your level, it's likely time to move on."
Lucrative rewards and financial windfalls pull in IT workers, says Scot Marcotte, chief technology officer at Buck, but they can quickly lead to dead ends.
"Roles that excite, fulfill and stretch us should be our priority, always assuring we're growing toward the future," Marcotte says. "Even in situations where the role might not be ideal, we should take every opportunity available to get to that ideal place. Leadership training, accreditations, and other areas for core competency development are not always highly visible. But they should be investigated. Benefits packages that include career programs, investment plans and even — and perhaps especially — well-being programs should be reviewed and factored in any career decision. Increasingly, employers are tailoring their offerings to the individual. We should take full advantage."
'It's worth sticking it out'
Colin Chapman, chief delivery officer at Nexient, suggests there are a number of ways to be successful in tech, but they're essentially closed off if you're not clear eyed about moving forward.
"A technical career can take you in many different directions — managing big projects and people, developing new technologies or becoming an industry guru who writes papers and gives a lot of talks," Chapman says. "It's easy to fall into a rut if the only way you can imagine moving forward is doing something you don't enjoy. Take DevOps and cloud services. If you're still relying on manual processes or hosting workloads in a data center when they could be in the cloud, ask yourself why. You may have kept yourself in the buggy-whip business when the world has moved on to self-driving cars."
'I'm too busy to change'
Putting out fires every day can wear out high-performing employees, who may find themselves feeling too stressed to consider where their career is headed — and what options might be out there.
"As an IT employee, it's incredibly easy to get caught up in the day-to-day emergencies that require your attention," says Hyde. "Let's face it — for a long time, the industry has been reactive rather than proactive. For example, if you receive an alert from network monitoring software, do you review it right after you receive it or wait? What this type of schedule means is that we don't have, and really can't, make time to review newsletters, attend conferences or have water cooler discussions about what's next because we're too busy 'doing' what it takes to maintain uptime and productivity."
Hyde says it's easy to find yourself in denial about your career stalling and offers some warning signs that you may need to find time to invest in planning ahead.
"You finally have two minutes to read some of the email messages in your inbox that aren't from co-workers, and you realize that you can't identify the vendors or products and services being discussed in the messages," Hyde says. "Unfortunately, knowing why we can't invest time in our careers doesn't solve the problem. We need to keep track of technology innovations because sooner or later we may have to deploy and maintain them."