What makes a successful IT professional? This has been discussed and debated and considered for years. While there are many technical abilities that relate to a person's success - and all are vital - I'd like to focus on the general character attributes every IT pro should have and on the things that every IT pro should know or do. While general character attributes, like being ethical or inquisitive, are more difficult to learn and develop, professional skills, such as knowing when to say you don't know something or not being afraid to call technical support, can be learned and honed.
If you are considering becoming an IT professional, pay special attention to the character attributes to see if yours match. Anyone can improve in the Things You Know or Do category, whether you are just starting out or have worked in the field for years.
Character attributes are generally things you are born with or have a natural tendency toward. It is true that talents and tendencies can be improved upon if you work at it. Set goals in these areas, and these skills will serve you well.
If you like a steady routine with few if any interruptions and a high level of predictability, IT may not be for you. In fact, as an IT professional, you need to be adaptable at both the micro and macro levels.
At the micro level, things change minute-to-minute throughout the day. The email server crashes, a drive fails, or a senior member of your company deletes a file and needs you to get it back right away for a big meeting. These things are normal and happen every single day.
Likewise with your hours. You may be scheduled to work 9 to 5, but there is a very good chance that you will be called to work late to fix a problem, work over a weekend or a holiday to perform an upgrade or be called to get on an airplane and fly across the country to fix an urgent problem. This is the nature of IT and why we are compensated well when compared to many other careers.
Adaptability is also critical at the macro level. Standard ways of doing things change all the time. PCs with mainframe access gave way to network servers, which led to server sprawl, which then led to the rise of virtualization that is evolving into cloud computing. Networking standards for PCs in the 1980s didn't really exist to any wide degree. We carried floppy disks between computers to share information or, if we were really cutting edge, shared data over a 9,600 bps modem. That gave way to ARCNET, Token Ring, FDDI, and Ethernet physically and NetBEUI, IPX, and TCP/IP in the 1990s, which settled to TCP/IP over Ethernet in the 2000s with many switches, routers and other devices to manage, control and secure traffic. Today, Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) are changing the conversation in networking. Banyan Vines was superseded by Novell Netware, which was in turn replaced by Linux/UNIX and Windows servers. Programming, storage and many other areas have undergone similar transformations.
In each case, you need to adapt and change or get left behind with skills from the previous era that are no longer in demand.
Inquisitive / Curious / Eager to Learn
Next, the successful professional is inquisitive, curious and eager to learn. These attributes all explain the same thing, namely the insatiable desire to learn new things. This is closely related to being adaptable - to adapt, you constantly need to learn new things, look for trends in the industry and make judgment calls about what fields to study and where the "up and coming" areas are. There is more to learn than can ever be learned in the IT field, so determine where your interests lie and study that area. Know it well and then understand how it relates to other areas; also be aware of changes in those related areas and the changes they may make in your chosen area. If your area seems to be on the decline, determine what is next and start learning about it now while you still have a job. Take every opportunity you are offered for training, whether formal classroom training, informal lunch and learns, industry groups and conferences, reading blogs and books or taking video training.
Being teachable is closely related to the first two attributes. Be quick to learn and observe. Take direction, advice, correction when you make a mistake, etc., and learn from all of those. After you receive any form of constructive criticism, think about it and decide how you will act differently in the future. Don't get defensive when called out. Instead, learn from it and improve, so you don't make the same mistake again. Many of these lessons will come from the school of hard knocks. While these lessons are not usually fun to learn, the experience and your reflections on them later may prove invaluable and will separate you from many others.
Never has the need to be a team player greater than in IT today. There wasn't a lot of team playing in the 1980s, as there was not a huge IT infrastructure and most of the work was help desk work where being a team player simply meant dividing up the workload among the available staff. In the 1990s and 2000s, IT specialized significantly into silos, such as storage, networking, server administration (physical, email, database, etc.). Today, these silos are being broken down more and more, with greater virtualization and its resulting need to work across teams, as well as the move to SDN, software-defined storage (SDS) - indeed the software-defined data center (SDDC), if your company even has a data center anymore. More and more companies are moving to the cloud - how will you adapt? What skills are required by your company relative to cloud computing, etc.? These changes cross the boundaries of traditional silos of expertise and will require much greater cooperation among all members of IT.
While the other attributes previously discussed focus on your ability to change and adapt and work with others, this attribute of being ethical and trusted is a bedrock must-have skill to move beyond the most junior ranks of IT. IT routinely has access to sensitive information (financial, tax, health, grades, etc.). If you are even tempted to access data that you have no need to access, this is a red flag. Once you do it, you will be tempted to do it again and you will get caught - it is just a matter of time. Once caught, your career is over in IT at any firm. Your ethical standards need to be beyond reproach at all times. It is not a stretch to say that organizations trust their very existence to the data the organization has, which is in the hands of IT. Abuse of this trust could have financial, legal and other implications, not only for you as the IT representative but for the organization as a whole.
Your knowledge and skills are important, but if they are conveyed in an exciting, positive way to your coworkers, management, and clients, you will go a long way. No one likes to work with a negative person who can only say "no" to every request. Find ways to solve challenges and present them to those affected. While not as critical as being ethical, being enthusiastic is very important if you want to grow in your career.
Things You Know or Do
The character traits I've described are indeed very important, and, while they certainly can be developed, doing so typically involves a lot of time and much effort. Not that you shouldn't try to develop or improve your character - just know it's a slow process and don't expect overnight success.
On the other hand, these things you know or do can be learned, often from experience, and that learning and progress in your skills can really make you stand out from your peers. You don't need to necessarily learn all these things from your own experience either - you can learn from your colleagues, blog posts, etc., without having to make the same mistakes as others.
Know Your Limits / Know When to Say "I Don't Know"
No one knows everything - not even close. Even in your field of specialty, there will be many things you don't know, and that's OK. It is far preferable to say you don't know something and then go learn about it than to make up an answer and have people act on that information only to find it was incorrect. Undoing the changes and starting on a new course of action will probably cause much more time, expense and loss of respect among your colleagues than doing some research and coming back a few hours or days later.
Be Not Afraid ... to Call Tech Support
The previous point leads directly into this one: Don't be afraid to call technical support. They are the experts. Calling them means you'll have some cover if something goes wrong based on the actions you took at the direction of tech support. Besides, this is why you have support contracts and pay the vendors for access to that help. Rarely when you call support will a technical support representative be available to help you at that exact moment. Open a ticket and get the process started, then go to work researching and solving the problem yourself.
If you get it solved on your own, you can always close the ticket and impress management by fixing the issue. If you don't, you've still learned during your research and can inform the tech support person what you have done to speed up the diagnosis when they call back, shortening the time to fix the issue.
Willingness to Document as You Troubleshoot
Related to the previous point, your willingness to document as you troubleshoot is important for a few reasons:
You have a record of what was done if you need to back out a change.
You can send the list of what you've done to support if technical support gets involved.
You can learn from the experience and not make the same mistakes again.
You can resolve similar problems in the future much more quickly if you have record of what worked in the past.
Others in the organization can learn from your actions and you can, in turn, learn from theirs, which ties into the concepts of being teachable and a team player.
Let me reiterate: Document as you are troubleshooting, not at some later point when you've forgotten the exact steps taken.
In this regard, here is one of my favorite tips if you run Windows on your workstation: While documenting in Notepad what you're doing, press the F5 key to add date and time stamps along the way so you know exactly what was done, changed, said, etc. This can be useful if you have to look at other systems or logs to know what time to look for.
Planning Ability with Back-Out Options
The ability to plan is critical. After all, as an IT professional, you need to be able to plan how you will make changes, upgrade systems, etc. Closely related to your planning ability is the ability to create back-out options along the way. Things don't always go as planned, so if you run into trouble and have a back-out plan, you will recover much more quickly with less downtime, etc., than if you shoot from the hip and see what happens.
Beyond technical skills, success in IT takes an interesting mix of character traits and things you know and do. Review your own character and disposition to see if IT is a good fit for you. Think about how you can improve some of these traits to progress in your IT career. Go back over the list periodically to see where you have improved and to determine what areas to work on next.
About the Author
John Hales, VCP-DCV, VCP-DT, VCAP-DCA, VCI Level 2, is a VMware instructor at Global Knowledge, teaching most of the vSphere classes that Global Knowledge offers, including the Horizon Suite, vCAC and vC OPS classes. John is also the author of many books, including involved technical books from Sybex, exam preparation books, and many quick reference guides from BarCharts. He has also authored custom courseware, including Global Knowledge's "SDN Essentials: The Future of Networking" and "SDN Planning Workshop: Demystifying Vendor Solutions." His latest book on vSphere is entitled "Administering vSphere 5: Planning, Implementing and Troubleshooting." In addition to his VMware certifications listed above, John has various others, including Microsoft MCSE, MCDBA, and MOUS; EMC Storage Administrator (EMCSA); and CompTIA A+, Network+, and CTT+. John lives with his wife and children in Sunrise, Florida.