Where is your technology career going to be in 5 years?

This is a good question for any of us working in technology. Managing a career in any field is a challenge and requires deliberate attention. In technology, with rapid development and an ever-changing user needs, it’s all the more important.

Many of us got into the technology field either through college course study or simply because we love working with the stuff. We use it, fix it, manage it, develop it, support it and sell it. The pay is relatively good and we are often in high demand. People may get mad at the technology and indirectly at us, but they love us when it works.

Yet a career in IT requires ongoing planning. You can never rely on your current skills or the present technology. The technologies evolve around us. Increasing costs of technology always gives rise to outsource discussions. And those relatively good salaries mean we are ever-more accountable as we progress in our careers.

As you contemplate your own career, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Where have you been and where is your career going?
  • What are your career and personal aspirations?
  • What are you doing to add value to your organization?
  • What skills do you consider strengths?
  • What are your skill deficiencies?
  • What is happening in your particular technology field?
  • Are you an effective team member?
  • Do you want to be a manager?
  • Do you want to be a CIO?
  • Do you want to shift fields?
  • Do you want to work in a business unit of your organization?
  • What are you doing to ensure that your organization isn’t going to be waiting for you to retire and/or forcing you out?
  • How does your career fit into your values?

Managing your career does not necessarily mean climbing the ladder. That works for some, at some points in their careers, but not for others. Not everyone is cut out for managing. Beside the fact that there are fewer positions available the higher you go in an organization, you need to want to work with people, spend time communicating and working through issues, developing teams, problem-solving, conducting performance evaluations, coaching and recruiting. There are the politics, trying to find your way among competing priorities, various leadership and personalities, agendas, legislators, trustees, sister institutions, professional organizations…all amidst a hyper industry. Those of us in management roles can go from extreme highs and adrenaline to feeling like rag dolls whipsawed and bulldozed by circumstances beyond our control.

I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from managing. Rather, make sure you’re cut out for it. Many people who would much prefer a keyboard to a conference table. They would rather hone their technical skills than deal with management hoo-hah. Some have tried management and decided it was not for them.

Your career plan, rather than vertical, might be horizontal or any angle in between. It can be swayed by where you are in life. A twenty-something’s aspirations may be very different from a seasoned staff member. Younger staff are often trying to earn more money and status. Some of us like the adrenaline and rush of the work, others not so much. Sometimes our personal lives play a large influence. Tending to young or aged family members may, at times, take priority over career.

Some may start to climb the ladder and then take a few steps down. That works, too. Life values and circumstances change.

Think of Maslows Hierarchy of Needs. That model helps define different motivational factors for us at different times of our lives. More than anything, however, your career motivation should ultimately be driven by your life values.

There are times, too, when advancement of your career may require a leap of faith…and organization. Opportunities for advancement may be limited in your organization. You may have baggage from years past. Right or wrong, when you remain in an organization for a long time, people tend to perceive you in the present as you were in the past. A fresh start can sometimes help. Applying for and taking on positions in other organizations often allows you to redefine yourself in a new environment. The grass may not be greener, but it’s a fresh field.

That works for some, but not all. If you’re committed to the community and location, don’t leap simply to make more money or title. Strive to reinvent yourself in your current organization. Get to know the business units and understand the strategic direction of the organization. Target your skills and efforts in those directions. Not only will you be valued more, you will find tremendous satisfaction of being part of a larger whole.

Finally, think about your education. This is particularly important for those of us in higher education. Degrees matter for advancement in our industry. As you think about your future directions, you should consider how advanced degrees might help. Many technologists who want to be leaders seek an MBA. There is plenty of need for those who not only know the technology, but the business of technology. Others may want to pursue an MLS, PhD, EdD or other advanced or terminal degrees. Exposure to and learning from others outside the geekdom provides broader perspective.

The ultimate question is what do YOU want out of your career and WHERE is it going? More on technical leadership roles at So You Want to Be a Technical Leader and Why project management skills matter.