The IT industry is always changing, and if you want to keep up, you must, too. The way IT was done 50, 40, 30, even 20 years ago bears very little resemblance to today's way of working. Even in just the last few years, the ideas of cloud computing, mobile devices, the software-defined datacenter, to name just a few, are rapidly changing how organizations view the role of IT and how IT departments get funded.
This article addresses what you need to do to be a success in IT - we will not discuss the technical aspects much (though, of course, you need to be skilled technically), but rather will focus on the other skills and characteristics that those who are successful in IT have and need; fail to develop these other attributes, and you will most likely be unemployed and looking for a new career field.
My top five picks (in no particular order) are:
1. Learn all you can
Knowledge is power. You have heard this repeated throughout your life, and it is so true. Take every opportunity you are given to take a class, watch a YouTube video, go to a webinar, or get a book. The technology industry changes so rapidly that a skill from two or three years ago is basically ancient history. If your employer does not give you time off, take your own time and learn. Build a lab at home to practice your skills and learn new ones. You will need these skills in your current position, and your employer will look favorably on your new and improved skill set. If they do not, you have the skills to look elsewhere and be valued for what you can contribute.
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2. Learn technical skills across disciplines
Gone are the days when you could know one thing well and keep your job (at least above an entry-level job). You need to understand servers, storage, and networking as these areas converge. This is even more important if you work in virtualization, cloud computing, or the software-defined datacenter arenas, but this applies to security, application, and OS people as well.
In addition to understanding at least the fundamentals of the physical components, you also need to have at least a basic understanding of operating systems, including Windows, Linux, and Macintosh, as well as some understanding of virtualization platforms, such as VMware's vSphere, Microsoft's Hyper-V, and Citrix's XenServer. It is probably worth your while to know something about mobile platforms as well, including at least Android and iOS, as they are being implemented in the corporate environment by all of your users, and you need to understand the implications of their connectivity to your environment.
There is no way you can be an expert at all of them - learning and then maintaining that level of knowledge would be a full time job by itself, leaving you no time to use any of those skills on the job, but you need to have at a general idea of the trends and fundamentals to be able to talk to people in each discipline.
3. Learn business skills
Many of the technical people I meet think they just need to do a great job technically, and they will always have a job. That may have been true in the past, but it is not as true anymore. More and more, the ability to just do the job needs to be tempered with an understanding of business realities. The entire reason that IT exists is to support the organization, not the other way around. Once that concept is grasped, you will be much more likely to think in terms of business benefits and think about how an expenditure will help the business succeed. That is especially important if you want to be an independent consultant or if you wish to move from a purely technical role to a management role (even a low-level one). The more you can think like a business person, the more likely you'll describe projects in business benefit terms instead of as cool technology or how it makes something go faster.
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4. Learn communication skills
The ability to communicate with others is critical in any job role, and no more so than in IT. You need to be able to communicate with end users, other administrators, help-desk personnel, and management to get your projects approved and funded. You need to explain in simple English why your project is important, why the server crashed, or what kind of storage you need for the virtual machine (VM) to run properly, for example. You need the ability to say this without resorting to jargon and technical terms when speaking to non-technical personnel. You also need to use the correct technical terms when working with other administrators so they understand that you know what you are talking about and are asking for something reasonable.
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5. Be a knowledge sharer, not a knowledge hoarder
In dealing with others, I have found that people in IT generally fall into one of two categories: knowledge hoarders and knowledge sharers. Knowledge hoarders believe their value (and thus job security) is closely related to knowing things that no one else in the organization knows. The more items they have in that category, they believe, the more indispensable to the organization they are. This is almost never the case. Managers worry when there is only one person who knows something, in case you should quit, get sick, or die. That increases their concern and they start looking for a backup (or even replacement) for that person. In addition, peers are not willing to share with them either as they know they will get nothing in return. This can start a death spiral were each person shares less and less until management gets concerned and replaces most of the department or decides that they really don't need an IT department and decide to put everything in the cloud. Either way, it doesn't end well for the knowledge hoarder.
On the other hand, knowledge sharers believe that their value only increases as they share what they know with others. They try to teach and mentor those they work with to help them be better workers. This kind of person tends to induce others to share with them as well, making the department work better as a team and solve challenges that are more complex. This problem-solving mindset, along with a culture of working together to find root causes and solutions to problems, is exactly what produces the kind of teams that companies need.
If you do not listen to the other suggestions here, at least follow this one. Do a careful inventory of yourself and see which category, hoarder or sharer, you fit into and do what you can to share and mentor those around you. The dividends are huge for everyone.
Sharpening your skills in any of the areas listed above will make you more valuable; doing them all will raise your value exponentially. Remember, your salary is based on the benefits you bring to the company - the more value you bring, the higher your salary should be. Think about what you can do to increase your skills in the above areas. Read a book, take a college class in technical writing or communications, or work on your MBA, if you want to grow into a management position. The more you consciously think about your career in IT, read newsletters (such as this one or others about IT in general), and stay abreast of developments, the more likely you are to have a fulfilling career and to bounce back quickly after any setbacks, layoffs, etc.
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About the Author
John Hales, VCP, VCP-DT, VCAP-DCA, VCI, is a VMware instructor at Global Knowledge, teaching most of the vSphere classes that Global Knowledge offers, including the View classes. John is also the author of many books, from involved technical books from Sybex to exam preparation books, to many quick reference guides from BarCharts, in addition to custom courseware for individual customers. His latest book on vSphere is titled Administering vSphere 5: Planning, Implementing and Troubleshooting. John has various certifications, including the VMware VCP, VCP-DT, VCAP-DCA, and VCI; the Microsoft MCSE, MCDBA, MOUS, and MCT; the EMC EMCSA (EMC Storage Administrator); and the CompTIA A+, Network+, and CTT+. John lives with his wife and children in Sunrise, Florida.