Like life itself, it isn’t possible to map out a ‘perfect’ career. But while there may be unexpected twists and turns in our professional lives, there are plenty of ways to purposefully navigate towards your ultimate IT career goals, whether that’s earning the big bucks, moving into a specific field within tech, reaching a particular level of leadership, or all three!
If you’re in the early years of your IT career with big goals for your future, it’s a good idea to consider the skills, experience, and career steps you’ll need to hit those goals. In this article, we’re going to touch on some of the key areas where you can make decisions that will help (and not hinder!) your long-term plans.
Broad experience is valuable
New Zealand’s tech leaders come from a huge variety of backgrounds. At one point in time, IT leadership was a domain largely occupied by developers and ex-developers, but today’s industry is made up of success stories who have emerged from arts, finance, project management, marketing – the list goes on!
For those who’ve come up through IT, the technical skills held by successful senior leader tends to be broad and wide-ranging. Even within the area of development, we see expert mobile developers, those with specialist React experience, Python developers, and so on.
So when considering what step to take next, be open to roles outside of your main area of expertise, or which offer you the opportunity to work on projects that will broaden your experience and skills, or which are in a different part of the IT industry. This will help get you out of your comfort zone, stretch your skills, and challenge your abilities, all of which are valuable for your personal and professional growth.
Build those skills
When considering an advertised job, it’s natural to be focused on whether you would be a good fit for the role and if you have the capability to do the job. However, what we’ve observed is that less experienced IT professionals sometimes forget that it’s as much about what they want, both now and in the future, as it is about meeting the requirements of the employer.
View the job description as the baseline or foundation of the role – it’s the ticket to entry. Whether you should jump on that ride also depends on which skills you’ll get to use and develop in the job. Don’t be afraid to ask employers more about the expectations of the role. It’s on you to do the hard yards and determine whether you’ll collect some shiny new, transferable skills – whether that’s learning a new programming language, becoming certified within particular platforms, or applying your skills to business problems that you haven’t encountered before.
Top tip: If you’re consider a role that you could do with your eyes closed, think carefully about whether it’s offering you any other value. Is the role with a company that you can see yourself progressing in? Will it allow you to do work that has a purpose you believe strongly in?
Do you have long-term dreams of being in leadership or a senior technical role? There’s no avoiding the people element when you’re in a management position, so any opportunity to develop professional people skills is going to be valuable.
Some IT roles which focus almost entirely on technical aspects and will not put you in the position of needing to regularly convey complicated concepts to non-experts, present to a client, or collaborate on a project with other teams. If you have leadership plans, you might want to think twice about taking on a roles like this, which don’t allow you to develop and practice those ‘soft’ skills, like communication, negotiation, and collaboration.
Top tip: When you’re researching job roles online, and even during interviews, find out if the role includes any responsibilities which involve communication and customer service. Will there be training provided, and/or daily opportunities to sharpen your skills?
Pick an employer that encourages development
If you’re taking a role to help progress you towards some longer-term objectives, we would strongly recommend prioritising ‘provides professional development’ as a criteria for selecting your next job.
It may be immediately obvious in the job advert, or when looking at the prospective employer’s website, that they offer learning and development opportunities. However, you should also make a direct inquiry about how this works, what is actually on offer, and the parameters in place, i.e. budget offered per year.
Professional development can be delivered in several ways, including:
- Employer organised and paid for – either individually for you, or the whole team
- Employee organised and employer paid for
- Employee organised and paid for, but allowed time during the work day
- Direct manager training and coaching
- Peer or mentor support and training
- Professional development out of work hours
Top tip: It’s worth asking the employer what sort of help they’ve given to others, and exploring (in detail) what this actually looks like. This will help you make an informed decision about whether to go for that role or not.
Keep up with trends
We don’t have to tell you just how much the tech industry changes, seemingly week to week! Recently we’ve seen impactful, industry-shifting innovations in AI, machine learning, cyber security, and data management, to name just a few.
Keeping an eye on what’s changing in the industry is important for long-term career planning because it can offer clues as to what might be in high demand in the future, and even what might become obsolete. None of us know what IT will be like in ten years, but it’s possible to observe the industry and make some educated choices around what skills would be useful, and identify alternatives for the ‘perfect role’ should the world of tech diverge in an unexpected direction.
There’s nothing wrong with specialising; the industry is constantly calling out for highly experienced specialists. But at the very least, we’d suggest developing skills that could be transferable into a different type of role later. Here are some skills that are unlikely to become redundant:
- Process development
- Problem solving
- Business analysis and needs assessment
- Presentation skills
- Learning methodologies (learning something more efficiently)
- Systems architecture
- API and integrations
- Stakeholder management (receiving and providing information to key people in the business about a project or piece of work)
Top tip: Rather than focusing solely on the outputs and responsibilities of the role, read between the lines and list out the transferable skills you’ll gain from the experience.
Build a pathway to your dream job
While roles change and evolve over time, there’s still merit in identifying the dream job that you’re ultimately working towards, and understanding what it involves on a daily basis. Of course there are clues in the position descriptions of advertised jobs, but you’ll be able to get more valuable insight from a person already working in this space. Why not ask around to see if someone would consider being your mentor?
There are few replacements for 1:1 wisdom from someone who’s gone on the journey to get where you want to be. Sure, their path might look a little different, but the invaluable nuggets of gold they can give you might save you years in missteps and stress.
Top tip: Review job or position descriptions and create a list of common themes. What does the role of a ‘Chief Technology Officer’ involve, when advertised? Then, look at the profile pages of CTOs in New Zealand and any insights they share on website blogs or platforms like LinkedIn. What are the prevailing themes that are critical to the role? In those, there will be skills and experiences you can actively seek out in the next role you take on.
Benefits of a long-term view
We know it can be hard to imagine your IT career in five (or even ten) years’ time, and even if you can, those careful plans might change drastically by the time you reach that point. Regardless, this advice should stand you in good stead no matter where you end up. Thinking about the future and forward-planning is essentially about looking after yourself and giving yourself plenty of options. That’s a benefit, no matter what you end up doing!