Managing your technology career; it's not an entitlement

What are you doing to manage your career?

What are your professional goals and what are you doing to make them become a reality?

How will you avoid career obsolescence?

Sometimes these questions provoke a defensive response among IT professionals. What do I mean? Are there plans to outsource us? Is this a veiled 'Dear John' message?

No, but given the rising costs of technology in an ever-changing field, I strongly suggest that you have an ongoing career plan. Just because you currently have a job, benefits and a fair amount of job security does not mean things can't happen down the road. Higher education is entering a period of much greater accountability. The cost of college is too great not to. Constituents will challenge us to prove our value, to cut our costs, to look at outsourcing and other possibilities. Computing is becoming commoditized and more and more there will be options for outsourcing. We cannot rest on laurels or succumb to a sense of entitlement. We must continually reinvent ourselves and be ready for what's coming.

Don't panic. Be realistic. There are many career strategies you can implement to keep yourself current. First, start reading the writing on the walls. Professional trade journals are ripe with trends emerging in our technology. Engage in discussions and career listservs. Become aware of and look for new opportunities to add value in your organization.

Make a plan. Set goals and start taking steps in that direction.

Consider what type of training you need. Often times technology workers tend to focus on, well, technology training. That's important. So, too, are developing some of the 'softer' skills, like writing and communication, project management and team development. We will also need leaders for tomorrow. How many of you would be willing to take a management role? MBA?

Never assume that your career plan is your employer's responsibility. While we have an interest and will do what we can, it would be a grave mistake to assume that the organization will carry you through to age 65. Leadership and management are more transient, hence you can never depend on anything over a period of time.

It's YOUR career. If you don't take charge of it, you'll end up where it takes you, for better or worse.

*****

A book you might find useful is JobShift. It'll help you think of yourself as your own business.

Why project management skills matter

IT departments in higher education have always been at the forefront of emerging technologies. Cool systems and new applications first appeared and were bandied about the backrooms of the technical staff. As the technologies incubated, gained a foothold and then became core applications for our institutions, what were once novel computer applications became mission-critical. In the past thirty years, we’ve seen the explosion of personal computers, the Internet, email, enterprise applications, learning management systems, online services and much more. Our small technology departments, germinated in academic areas, are now major cost centers for colleges and universities. They’re made up of several units…systems, network, academic support, information systems, user support, learning commons, telecom, stores and computer repairs. Technology budgets often amount to 10% (give or take) of total campus budgets.

We have CIO’s to run these ever-growing departments. The role of the CIO requires, in addition to a broad understanding of various technologies, business savvy. With all the funding and multi-year contracts involved, combined with the rapidly-changing software, network and security industries, our technology departments are maturing to be run more like the business they are. That may not always sell well in our higher ed culture, but there’s no question about it.

Project management methodologies have provided many technology departments with the framework they need to select, implement, sustain and develop technologies on our campuses. It is a disciplined approach to containing costs of what can be multi-year, expensive (short- and long-term) software applications that change the very nature of how we work. Good project charters align executives around the core business and academic drivers for new technologies. They lay out assumptions about cost, the people needed, the business practices that will be impacted and how decisions will be made. Project schedules lay out the work and timelines to mitigate cost overruns that plague unorganized projects.

Project management is also a framework for managing organizational change. Initiated under the guise of a new technology or organizational initiative, new systems require changes in business processes and personal work habits. They must be learned and adapted, often at the expense of old behaviors.

On a small scale, think about an upgrade to a new computer and operating system. Years ago, you learned what was then your new computer. You set it up, configured it and learned how it works to get your work done. It may not have been easy, but over time it worked predictably and efficiently. When you replace that computer with a new one, things are not where they used to be. You may not have all the add-ons. Tools and menu bars look different. You have to RE-LEARN it! You curse, you experience a period of frustration over having to waste time on this, but you endure, for better or worse.

Take this example on a grander scale. Your organization wants to upgrade its student information or course management system. For whatever reasons, the decision is made at the top and there is a clear mandate. Your project team will need to review options available and then select a new technology product that will change the very nature of how the most fundamental processes of our campus work. Many of the people who used the old systems for years were adept. Familiarity and routines worked. When the new systems are cutover, all those routines will change. Sure, there will be training and communications, but the fact is, all those people will need to change their habits!

Project management may also be applied to non-technical projects, too. Many schools are exploring integration of library, technology and academic services in what are called ‘learning commons.’ What might appear to be sensible to the lay person is a cultural integration of epic proportions. This type of project is organizational integration of very different cultures. The overlap between what they do is significant, but combining the caffeinated, fast-paced, and youthful culture of technology with the venerable, staid culture of libraries offers some interesting dynamics.

Yet here is where project management can be helpful. Learning commons concepts clearly focus on the changing needs of students, faculty and patrons. They know not of our organizational and cultural differences. Rather, they want access to computers and research materials. They want multimedia equipment to help integrate their ideas through text, audio and visual means. They want experts to assist them with the computers and the information sources. Why not put it all in one place? The schools that have done this have seen their libraries and technology services transformed. But only with good project scope, executive leadership and advocacy, a structured timeline and key people involved will this happen. Otherwise, it will be difficult to get past the un-likeminded staffs of two traditionally separate units.

Definition of Project Management

  • A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. It implies:
  • a defined objective and/or deliverable
  • a specific timeframe
  • a budget
  • unique specifications
  • working across organizational boundaries

Project management is a disciplined way of thinking and managing. There are several key components of projects:

  • Project charters: the what, why, who, where and when of major organizational initiatives
  • Work breakdown structures: definition and delineation of all the major categories of work
  • Project schedule: Once the work is defined, the key tasks are injected into a schedule around which a realistic timeframe is derived
  • Decision-making structure: Decision levels and scope defined at executive, project and team levels
  • Project budget: an outline of initial costs, long-term costs for people, software, hardware, training, events and documentation
  • Communication plan: keeping stakeholders and project participants informed (bi-directional)
  • Team structure: engaging the people whose skills, experience and aptitude are best suited to the job

Besides those organizational tools, project management requires time and attention to the softer skills. Because the very nature of project management is introduce new technologies that require some kind of change on those in your organization, project managers need to be facilitators of change. Good processes are required to make and manage decisions, build strong and diverse teams, communicate effectively through a number of means and continually remind people of the larger goals and objectives that drive the project.

Selection of a project manager is a key step. Not everyone is cut out for it. You need to want to organize, to lead and to carry the torch. You need to be comfortable with ambiguity and long hours. You need to have a thick skin and positive attitude. And most of all, you need to be willing. However, there is no better way to advance your career by filling this vital need within an organization. You may not an expert in all the areas of project management, but by stepping up, you agree to see that everything gets done. You surround yourself with people of complementary skills. You also get exposure to the executive team members in ways you may not have had in the past.

Those are the things that will show you are ready for advancement in your career.

Where will your technology career be in 5 years?

So, you want to be a technology manager.

So, you want to be a technology manager

If you are looking to advance your technology career in management, there are plenty of opportunities for the right people. The first wave of IT leaders is nearing retirement. These were the men and women pioneers, many of them who happened to be in the right place at the right time during the last 20 years during the revolution of the personal computer.

Managing isn’t for everyone. Nor is it something to be waded into. Unfortunately, that is how most of us get there. We were good at something, so others thought we could/should/would manage a project or unit. But the skills that got us here are not necessarily the skills that help us succeed in management.

Effective [technology] managers and leaders develop other skills and character traits.

  • A positive attitude and ‘can-do’ spirit
  • Organization and follow-through
  • Project management skills
  • Strong writing and presentation skills
  • Active listening skills
  • Ability to discuss complex technical issues in lay terms
  • A keen sense of the organization’s strategic mission
  • Ability to coach and bring out the best in those around them
  • Positive role modeling
  • Passion for remaining current in the field
  • A willingness to do whatever it takes, which sometimes requires long hours
  • Ability to delegate appropriately
  • Desire to work for, with and sometimes around people
  • Propensity for personal reflection
  • Humility and the knowledge that there are no right answers, only solutions yet to be discovered
  • Ego strength to absorb criticism without taking it personally
  • Strong sense of self that is not necessarily defined by work
  • Knowledge of when to lead, when to help, when to follow
  • Humility

Few people meet all these areas. However, many are skills and traits that can be developed.

If you have been successful in your career to date and want to advance into a technical management role, here are some things to consider.

  • Management training and professional development
  • An advanced or terminal degree
  • A mentor, someone in the organization you trust, respect and demonstrates leadership
  • Discussion this with your supervisor (or mentor) and see what the needs of the organization are and how you might fit into and advancing role
  • Develop a career plan
  • Assess your strengths and weaknesses (see bullets above)
  • Ask others about your skills
  • Become an expert project manager, first on small scale and work your way up
  • Study effective leaders and what they’ve done
  • Read, read, read
  • Write, write, write
  • Identify your organizations key challenges in the next 1-5 years
  • Do the Myers-Briggs, DISC or other (meant to be done in teams and with facilitator, but you can find your way to online surveys that will score you right away. The key is to look for results analysis and how people with your profile work with others.)
  • Be patient, be persistent

It is also important to assert a leadership role over your own career development. Others may help, and organizations may provide training, but don’t fall prey to the entitlement trap. Organizations will help you as long as it’s in their interest. Training budgets are finite and politics can sway allocations. The best approach is to be your own advocate and consultant. If you need to learn a new skill or technology, take initiative. If someone asked you about a new technology or product, learn about it. Become an expert on your own!

Organizations seek managers and leaders who can make things happen. They can deal with ambiguity and find their way through it. These are not the people who see something wrong (or absurd) and broadcast the problems (or absurdity). Rather, those who simply take the initiative to do something about it and offer viable alternatives and solutions.

Suggested readings: Job Shift and On Becoming a Technology Leader.

More on managing your technology career...

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.

ITS Welcomes Amy Berg

Amy Berg is the new ITS Director of Operations. The position, formerly held by Cathy Bates, oversees network, telecommunications, security and the University Computer Store. Amy joins the senior ITS management team of Ken Kochien and Ted Wisniewski, and she reports to Dwight Fischer.

Amy spent the first 22 years of her career at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. There she led Telecom and Mail Services. She has a wealth of business, contract and personnel management experience.

Please welcome her. You'll be seeing her in the months ahead. Amy can be reached at extension 2900 and at alberg@plymouth.edu.

The IT professionals who add value today and tomorrow

Tim Goral, the editor of University Business, attended a Campus of the Future conference recently held in Hawaii. There was a lot written about themes. Goral was inspired by Thomas Friedman, author of the book 'The World is Flat.' Here's what he took away. It builds on the concept of the versatilist...

"Key to that strategy is the emergence of new "middle jobs," or jobs that can't be outsourced. But how do we prepare today's students for those jobs? "We don't just need more education, we need the right education," he said.

That education must satisfy the unique needs of the future job market. It will encourage and build upon skills that define the types of jobs that will encompass the global economy. It will involve new ways of teaching. It will also likely involve combining two or more disciplines to create a new area of study specifically geared to accommodate "flat world" economy.

Friedman outlined eight new middle jobs for which educators must prepare their students. The new middle jobs will be held by people who are:

Great collaborators. Those who have learned to work effectively with others whether in the same office or on other continents via internet technology.

Great "leveragers." People who have learned to do the job of 20 people using technology will always be in demand.

Great synthesizers. This is a person who can take two different products or ideas to create something new that enhances the value of both.

Great explainers. Friedman's "flat world" is so complex it will need new "guides" to lead the way for the rest of us.

Great localizers. The internet has made every small business a potential global player.

Green adapters. "Deriving alternatives to fossil fuels and sustainable societies will always be in demand," he said.

Passionate people. Those who have the ability to bring a unique personal touch to "vanilla" jobs will keep them safe from the threat of outsourcing.

Great adapters. Friedman said the winners in the future job market will be those who make quick changes. He said it's like training for the Olympics without knowing what sport you'll compete in.

Once the unquestioned leader in technology, he said, America won't win this race by default, only by understanding the new flat world and becoming part of it.”

http://www2.universitybusiness.com/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=286

Living in an online world

I took some time off blogging this past month. It felt good. Blogging is new for me and I’ve grown to like it, but not the obligatory part. I spent time disconnecting last month. That's what summer should be.

We’re now looking at the start of a new academic year. One of the thoughts I’ve pondered on this summer was how to better engage faculty members in understanding and using some of the new tools that are second nature to our students. More and more, our students navigate within a real and virtual world of vast amounts of information, media and stimuli. Some of it is very real, such as blogs from war zones, and other parts are more surreal, like gamers. But more than anything else, there is community online. While we sit back and observe, maybe pass judgment on the folly of it all, they are running in information circles around us. They communicate and network like most of us have never known. You need to be prepared.

Many of your students this year will have web pages. Maybe on www.mySpace.com, maybe on www.facebook.com. If you want to get to know them, this is where they hang out. Avoid a critical eye; use a listening eye. To know these places and how interaction works is to gain understanding of your students. Casey Bisson noted this, too, in a recent blog post.

I know. Our two daughters, 16 and 13, and all their friends, live for this. They take pictures, post them online, write and chat with others. We teach them safety and etiquette, and share stories about how some people make big mistakes, but then monitor their pages and then let them go.

Funny thing is, these are probably more like the tools they will need as they enter an increasingly complex, networked employment world. And won’t it be something when we, as we age, revel at how natural they make it seem.

How can you use this information to reach out in new ways, to incorporate some of your coursework into an online experience? First, spend some time online. Get into Facebook and find your way to Plymouth University. Look up some of your students. You might even ask them for their facebook addressees.

You might want to create your own page in Face.book. A few of your colleagues are already there. Check out this one: http://plymouth.facebook.com/profile.php?id=44603719

You don't need to be a convert, but if you know your students better, this information can be useful in connecting with them in class and helping them better understand the material you teach.

You can also use some of the more dynamic tools in WebCT to strike up some conversations in ways you never dreamed.
I'm not saying whether this is good or bad. In fact, there are elements of both in this new world. I am saying, however, that any tendency to shrug this off as a passing fad is to miss a key ingredient in understanding students of today. They are the employees of tomorrow. Those who will be successful will be those who exploit their online networking and community.

(continued...)Â

More on the future of IT Professionals

We in the field need to have our feelers out on where our careers are going. We need to continually earn our keep in this environment. This week's ComputerWorld has a Special Report on the IT Profession: 2010. It's worth a read. Here are some summary points I pulled from these and other articles.

· The IT worker of the future will be more of a versatilist. They'll need to know more and more about the business context. They'll need skills more than just those at the keyboard. They'll need to be able to develop relationships with business units, develop and communicate ideas, maybe present. They'll need to be active problem-solvers, individually and in groups. They will need to be perpetual learners. This isn't a career for wallflowers. We need movers and shakers. ITS students, heed notice. You, my friends, will be leading us in another decade or two.

Here's another quip:

Line Between Business and IT Blurs.

"The IT department will still exist, but the sharpest tech workers will move effortlessly between IT and business units.

As more CIOs move toward business and IT alignment over the next several years, the makeup and structure of IT will change. IT and business unit employees will work more closely together -- and in some cases, interchangeably.

But today's technology leaders say this trend doesn't signal an end to the independent IT department, which still plays a critical role in companies by providing the structure, expertise and continuity needed to build and maintain a strong infrastructure." http://computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&taxonomyName=careers&articleId=112368&taxonomyId=10 ComputerWorld July 17, 2006