1. Become a true expert on something. "Don't be satisfied with knowing only the part you use day to day in your job; pick a topic and learn it inside and out," says Jay Swan, CCIE #17783, a network engineer in Southwest Colorado, and a Cisco Press book author.
"Offer internal training sessions on the topic so that you become known as the local expert on the topic. If you're one of two IT people trying to do it all in a small company, becoming the expert on 'networking' might mean being the guy who knows how to upgrade the software on the router. If you're in a large company with a dedicated network group, it'll be much more specific."
Swan says one skill that is immensely useful in almost any environment is the ability to interpret packet captures. "The standard tool for decoding packet captures is Wireshark, and it's free. This is a skill that takes a lot of patience and experience to develop, but it allows you to get data about what is actually happening on the network, vs. what's supposed to be happening. I have found so many weird, obscure problems over the years by looking at packet captures that I now have this motto in my group, 'when in doubt, capture packets.'"
2. Write clear and complete documentation. "IT people are notoriously bad at documenting things; the better you are at this, the more it would hurt to lose you and have to find someone with the same ability," Swan says.
Often, there's no magic formula to documentation. In many shops, there is no formal method for documentation, so the secret is to just do it. "In networking, I like to have three things: 1) A textual narrative that describes in plain language how something works and why it was designed that way; 2) Diagrams that show the visual relationships between the parts; and 3) Spreadsheets that list details, such as addresses and interface numbers. It's also very helpful to build design templates that describe standard ways of building systems," Swan says.
For some great examples of design templates, read the blog of Michael Morris, one of the first Cisco Certified Design Experts. If your company uses one of the IT process frameworks like ITIL®, there may already be standardized ways of doing this sort of thing.
3. Integrate your skill set. Deborah Lovell, past president of the Association of IT Professionals, says IT pros should add business knowledge and interpersonal skills to their skill set.
Attend professional development classes that focus on critical thinking and presentation skills. Another way could be to get involved with professional societies, or Toastmasters International, aimed at honing individual's speaking and leadership skills. "This is very important if IT workers want to survive in today's IT profession, which requires generalists," Lovell says.
According to Lovell, C-level execs are pushing their managers to send business people on technology courses. This could negatively impact IT pros who are unable to add business and interpersonal skills to their skill set.
4. Understand the business from your boss's boss point of view. This sounds like a tall order, particularly if you are at the bottom rung of the ladder, but you'll get brownie points if you understand your organization's initiatives and objectives, and seek opportunities for performance improvement, according to Susan Cramm, founder and president of executive coaching firm Valuedance.
Cramm's own story is inspirational: as software applications director in the late 1980s at restaurant chain Taco Bell, Cramm was being groomed to replace the CIO. She requested to be put on a high-profile special projects team to overhaul the company so she could be exposed to general business issues. In 1989, after a year on the special project, she was given responsibility for financial planning at Taco Bell, and in 1990 was named CIO. Four years later, with technical and financial experience under her belt, Cramm was appointed CFO at Chevy's Mexican Restaurants.
"Even if your role is in IT support or maintenance, you could still lend a hand. Interview your boss about the business. Raise your hand and offer to help," says Cramm, author of the book, Eight Things We Hate About IT. Tell your boss that you want to learn more about the business and seek out projects that will help you develop skills such as forecasting, project funding, and so on. To get your foot in the door, offer to type up the notes from meetings. That will help to hone your listening and communication skills.
There are many roles that mix IT with business, such as IT liaison and relationship management. Having a good mix of business and technology skills seems to be the Holy Grail in many organizations.
5. Understand that things may not always go to plan. Cramm recalls the story of one service-minded call center leader who was invited by the business planning department to transfer over. He worked in that department for a while but the role required analytical skills, which the individual didn't have. "He came back to the call center department with an understanding that his niche was customer care," says Cramm. He eventually set up his own customer care company.
6. Work for a boss who has influence in the company. We don't get to choose our boss but we can make the most out of a good or bad situation, according to Cramm. A good boss will value your career goals and will help you get there, particularly if he or she is influential. If your boss is ineffectual, anything helpful that you do for the organization will reflect well on your boss. So it's a win-win situation.
7. Don't play the external job offer card. It's always a gamble to go to your boss and tell her that you've been offered a job with another company, but you are willing to stay if she offers you more money or a promotion. "As soon as you do that, you are seen as a mercenary," says Cramm.
If you want to stay with the company, it is better to approach your boss or HR with a six-month timeline of where you want to be in the company and the skills you want to learn, Cramm advises. That shows loyalty and drive. If nothing happens within three months, you should go back and reiterate your goals. It's then that you can mention these goals are important to you and that you may start looking for opportunity elsewhere
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Linda Leung is a senior IT journalist with 20 years' experience editing and writing news and features for online and print. She has extensive experience creating and launching news Web sites, including most recently independent communities for customers of Cisco Systems and Microsoft. As an experienced journalist in the U.S. and the U.K., she has led teams of journalists and industry experts to produce compelling content delivered via blogs, news, features and podcasts for all levels of technology executives.