What it takes to get ahead

As a technology columnist and working CTO, I get my fair share of requests for career advice from former colleagues and InfoWorld readers.

Recently, I found myself in a mentoring role with a relatively young former colleague who was seeking career advice. He has been the senior technologist at his current organization for a few years, consistently delivering the right technology solutions, but feels like he hasn’t yet achieved the professional respect from management that he desires.

Early in the conversation, he asked me what I thought he had to do to convince an older, more traditional business executive within his company that he has the experience and know-how of someone much older.

My answer: “Start building a time machine into the future. Your best bet is to age.”

“Well, what do I do right now?” he asked.

“Keep getting older,” I replied, half seriously.

What I was really talking about were “soft” people skills — the part of the job that is difficult to measure, the nebulous but all-important je ne sai quoi of work, in which we gain (or lose) influence within our organizations. In my experience, lack of focus on these skills is the chief career inhibitor not just for CTO or CIO aspirants who want to straddle business and IT but also for technologists who want to stay firmly in IT.

Regardless of one’s role in a company, you have to work with others to get things done. In an age of outsourcing and partnering, in which IT must increasingly manage personal and business relationships to make things happen, soft skills have never been more critical.

As technologists, we focus intensely on the quality of the technological artifacts we produce in our daily work as a measure of how well we are serving an organization but very little on how we present ourselves and interact with others in an organization to achieve end results. As I spoke with the former employee, I realized he was partially conflating his impressive technology output with business and people experience, so I reminded him of something that successful people already know but technologists sometimes forget: More people see how you deal with people than will ever really know what you do.

Suppose, for example, that you delivered a truly elegant custom software system to solve a key business problem on time and under budget. It’s tempting to assume you have knocked the IT ball out of the park, but there are questions that must be asked, even in the face of presumed success:

– To achieve this goal, did I energize my team and others in the company to get the project done, or did I simply wear them out?

– Will I be able to motivate this same group for the next project?

The people part of the equation really matters, and ongoing thinking about such “soft” issues can prevent the slow accumulation of resentments that can stall a career.

Technologists with the gift of self-awareness are able to take a self-critical step outside themselves, but those who are more challenged in this area must make a deliberate attempt to look in the mirror.

When it came to my mentoring conversation, I suggested to my former colleague that calling me to talk about it was a good start, but he should try to engage the older executive about what it takes to be successful in his organization. It’s better to initiate the conversation yourself than to frustrate an executive into telling you when it could be too late.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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