12 ways to become an indispensible IT pro

How do you keep your job — or get a better one — in an era when hiring is in a freeze and budgets are perpetually squeezed? Follow these 12 maxims and find out.

Some of these ideas are practical advice you’ve probably heard before (and ignored). Being familiar with the business objectives and how technology can improve the bottom line is more important than ever. But so is expanding your portfolio of IT skills. Mastering cloud services or data management will help ensure your relevance in a rapidly changing work environment. You’ll also want to reach out and communicate with your colleagues across the aisle and the organization, and take on dirty jobs nobody else wants. Eventually it may even mean leaving the comfort of a big organization and branching out on your own.

But remember: Becoming “indispensable” can be a double-edged sword. Get too indispensable and you might find yourself unable to move beyond your niche.

Effective IT habit No. 1: Get down to business
You may be your organization’s most talented developer or dedicated systems administrator. But if you don’t know what the business is selling or what service it’s providing, you’re an unemployment statistic waiting to happen.

First step: Learn as much about the business as you possibly can, advises Mark A. Gilmore, president and co-founder of Wired Integrations, a strategic technology consulting firm.

“Ask yourself, ‘How does it make its money? What are its strengths and weaknesses?'” Gilmore says. “Once you understand how the company works, you can use your IT knowledge to improve the company — thus making yourself more valuable and less dispensable.”

It helps to have a deep understanding of the company’s critical infrastructure and to keep abreast of tech trends, he adds. But this may also require broadening your worldview.

“Don’t look at things from strictly an IT perspective,” he says. “Widen your vision to see how things relate to the business world around you. That will make you more valuable than 20 technical certifications and a master’s degree.”

Effective IT habit No. 2: Keep your eye on the bottom line
Your job isn’t just to keep the lights on and the data center humming. It’s to help your organization use technology to improve the business — especially by trimming costs and increasing efficiency.

Servers running at a fraction of their capacity? If you haven’t already virtualized your data center, now’s the time. Software licenses dragging down your budget? You have an increasingly broad choice of low-cost cloud-based apps that let you pay only for what you use and only for as long as you use it. That’s barely scratching the surface.

“IT professionals need to focus on areas which either drive down costs, such as virtualization, cloud computing, and converged networking, or on areas that help to generate revenue, such as social media, mobile marketing, and SEO,” notes Rick Mancinelli, managing partner for IT consultants Cloud Computing Concepts. “Ultimately, those IT professionals that have a positive impact on the bottom line will be the most valuable to their employer.”

Effective IT habit No. 3: Keep your head in the cloud
Because so many traditional IT functions are moving to the cloud, which any business user can procure with a phone call and a credit card, your company may no longer need you to flip switches, connect cables, or troubleshoot machines. But they will still need someone who can tell them what services are available, which ones are worth looking at, and which ones they should avoid.

“If your organization plans to rely more on public cloud providers, especially for basic infrastructure needs, you may find you need fewer in-house operations people to maintain, patch, and upgrade systems,” says Mark White, chief technology officer of Deloitte Consulting’s technology practice. “But you’ll still require people with expertise in managing a catalog of cloud services, handling subscribers, brokering agreements with cloud providers, and intervening when problems arise.

“The cloud puts greater demands on both your technical and your business-of-IT skills. If you’re CIO, it’s an opportunity to take your capabilities up to the next level.”

Effective IT habit No. 4: Broaden your tech horizons
Besides mastering their own tech domains, savvy IT pros broaden their skill sets to include other areas of expertise. If a crisis arises in one of those areas — and the persons responsible for handling it aren’t available — you may be able to step in and save the day.

“This helps employers view them as valuable team players who can easily branch out to handle other jobs,” says Dr. Issac Herskowitz, dean of the Graduate School of Technology at Touro College. “And an employee who has more than one area of expertise is more valuable when a department is downsizing.”

The easiest way to develop new skills (and impress your boss) is by volunteering your services to other areas of IT and to stay on top of emerging tech trends, Herskowitz adds. The more you know about the latest and greatest tech, the more likely you’ll be invited into the conversation when those technologies are being considered for adoption.

Effective IT habit No. 5: Teach your co-workers to speak geek (and learn to talk biz)
Want to break down the walls between IT and the business side, as well as earn a little goodwill in the process? Start a series of casual teaching sessions where you bring less savvy coworkers up to speed about the latest in tech, suggests Ben Dunay, founder of Sixthree Technology Marketing, a consulting firm that helps facilitate sales of technology to the military. You might also learn a thing or two about the business along the way.

“Even if you start small and informally over brown bags in the break room, it is a very cool way to step outside the norm and boost your career,” he says. “By making the technical terms clearer to the business people, and by making the business terms clearer to the technical people, you can quickly become the go-to guy for your boss when he needs something technical explained to save the day,” he says.

The opposite is also true. By meeting with the business side, you’ll grow more familiar with their needs and concerns, as well as how they communicate, says Jay McVinney, CEO of DBA in a Box, a provider of on-demand support for Microsoft SQL Server databases.

“The most common failure of technical people is the lack of understanding of the business side,” he says. “To be effective in the future, a technical person must learn key business concepts, learn the industry language spoken by their business units, and be able to translate freely and fluently between technical and business units.”

Effective IT habit No. 6: Ditch the slackers, find a mentor
Hanging with a crew that likes to take long lunches and knock off at five (or earlier)? You’re not doing your career any good, says David Maxfield, author of “Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success,” a book about alter your career-limiting habits.

“The habits that hold you back are likely enabled, tolerated, or encouraged by others,” he says. “Use positive peer pressure by surrounding yourself with hardworking friends who share your career goals. Distance yourself from the office slackers.”

Instead, Maxwell advises you seek someone with more experience to steer your career in a positive direction. “Find a trusted mentor,” he says. “That will help you navigate the career development opportunities that exist within the organization.”

Effective IT habit No. 7: Do it with data
If your business users aren’t drowning in information now, they will be soon. Taming the data deluge will make you invaluable to any organization.

“IT people who can make sense of business data, safely store it, categorize it, retrieve it, and especially analyze it are highly valuable,” notes Scott Lever, a managing consultant with PA Consulting Group. “These are the people who are using customer data to help drive business decisions.”

George Mathew, president and COO of business analytics platform vendor Alteryx, predicts one of the hottest jobs in tech over the next few years will be the “data artisan,” a hybrid role that mixes data analysis with business savvy,  pulling market insight, competitive information, and customer data into business intelligence systems.

“Data artisans will be asked to pull from structured and unstructured sources to drive the most important decisions within an organization — like where it should open its next retail location, whether to pursue a new market, and which products to push,” he says.

Effective IT habit No. 8: Take on jobs no one else wants
Safe, predictable jobs won’t get you into trouble, but they won’t earn you any glory either. It’s the tough jobs where you can prove your value, says John Paul Engel, principal for Knowledge Capital Consulting, a boutique management consulting firm.

“The best career advice I ever received was from then president of Citibank California who told me, ‘Look for the biggest problem and solve it because there in lies your greatest opportunity’,” he says.

Take on a project that’s already going well, the best you can hope for is that it will continue to go well. Take on something that’s a disaster and turn it around — even just a little better — and you get a reputation as somebody who gets things done, Engel adds. “If you make a problem even a little bit better, you are making progress.”

Effective IT habit No. 9: Don’t be a jerk
You might be the world’s most brilliant coder or the industry’s leading expert on user interface design. But if nobody likes you, your head is on the chopping block. Given the often challenging personality types drawn to technology, this is especially true for IT.

“Personality goes a long way when it comes time to make cuts in an organization,” notes Nathan Letourneau, director of marketing for PowerWise USA, makers of PC power management software. “Companies prefer people with positive attitudes and a good work ethic, even if they aren’t as highly skilled as another. Don’t be a pain in the butt or overly negative. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t speak your mind, but just make sure you’re respectful when doing it.”

Ultimately, managers like to get rid of the troublemakers and malcontents first, says Engel: “At the end of the day, it’s the person that makes the work environment of the other coworkers better that gets promoted and is the last to leave in a layoff.”

Effective IT habit No. 10: Go public
That doesn’t mean issuing your own personal IPO (though if you could pull one off, more power to you). The more people who know and rely on you — especially outside your department or organization — the harder it is to fire you, notes Engel.

If you have a client-facing job, you’re less likely to feel the ax on your neck because companies don’t generally like to fire people who have relationships with key accounts, he says — provided, of course, you obey Rule No. 9.

If your job doesn’t bring you into regular contact with clients, you can strive to become well known across different departments, especially in larger, more siloed enterprises.

“Look for projects and opportunities that cut across departments because this builds your internal network — thus making you more valuable to the company,” he says.

Effective IT habit No. 11: Don’t become literally “indispensable”
The problem with being labeled indispensable is that it can become a trap. Your talents can become so critical to an organization’s survival that you can never leave or rise to a new position within your company, says Steven A. Lowe, CEO of Innovator LLC, a consulting and custom software development firm.

“A friend of mine is an excellent developer who has created a few critical software systems for the company that employs him,” Lowe says. “No one else can step in and do what he does, and the company can’t ‘afford’ to promote him to a more senior position or pay him much more money. So he’s frustrated and miserable — but he’s certainly indispensable!”

The way to avoid this trap: Don’t hoard information or expertise. Delegate responsibility. Start training your own replacement now, or find ways to outsource your current responsibilities so that you can take on more challenging assignments.

“I have been both indispensable and dispensable, and I had better job security and was happier when I was dispensable,” says Jen Hancock, author of “The Humanist Approach to Happiness: Practical Wisdom.”

Hancock says, “When I was indispensable, things fell apart. If I tried to take a long weekend I came back to a mess I had to clean up. The longer I was away, the worse the mess. When I finally got my act together enough to manage the work and delegate it out properly, everything ran more smoothly.”

Effective IT habit No. 12: Know when to fire yourself
Sometimes the best way to become indispensible as an IT pro is to step away from a stifling career path, even if that means branching out on your own.

“I boosted my career by starting my own company,” says Lowe, of Innovator LLC. “I doubled my take-home pay immediately, set my own hours, and got to work on really interesting things with highly motivated people.”

The notion that a “successful career” implies a steady progression of higher-paying jobs within a company or industry just doesn’t apply any more, he adds.

“A successful career today is a journey on which you discover and do what you love,” he says. “If that happens to be offering businesses innovative ways of changing their work flow to achieve new levels of productivity and efficiency, that’s great. If that happens to be giving guided tours of canyons in Utah (instead of applying the advanced math degree you earned at university), that’s also great.”

When you’re out on your own, being indispensable means solving problems and letting others reap the rewards, Lowe says. “That’s pretty much the essence of my consulting career. I innovate, they prosper, we both win. The next time the client has a challenge, they call me first.”

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