In a hot job market, it's easier than ever to get burned

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times: Jobs for IT professionals are plentiful, and salaries are up, but in this flourishing job market you may be tempted to make your worst career mistake ever.

To further paraphrase Dickens, it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness: Even the most successful IT professionals are making costly misjudgments about their careers.

For IT professionals seeking challenging and lucrative opportunities, the times couldn't be much better. Combine a booming U.S. economy, continued rapid changes in technology, and a shortage of qualified candidates, and you get a rising demand for skilled IT workers. The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) surveyed companies in 1997 and concluded that the nation had 346,000 vacancies for programmers, systems analysts, and computer engineers, amounting to one in 10 existing jobs.

"Make hay while the sun shines" may be a good strategy for a farmer, but it could be the downfall of an IT professional.
These shortages mean higher starting salaries. In the last six months, staffing agencies report, nationwide, they are placing IT professionals in new jobs with salary increases in some cases of up to 20% over their last position.

And it wouldn't surprise me if this salary trend were to continue for the next five years.

Since there are so many openings and so many potentially seductive offers, IT professionals can make a lot of career mistakes. Now more than ever, career management should be their primary concern. As hard as it may be, IT professionals have to resist the lure of short-term gratification for the long-term goal of a successful, fulfilling career.

I've identified five major career mistakes that IT professionals make:

Mistake #1: Not taking responsibility for your own career
A well-thought-out career plan often gets left behind when times are good. Like all good plans, it should include strategies and tactics that will help you meet your goals. For example, if your three-to-five-year goal is to become a manager, your strategies might include asking your boss to let you lead a project and taking management courses at a local university.

Your tactics should include an action plan: "Tomorrow, I will make an appointment with my boss to talk about a project leadership position. Friday, I will call the university to get their fall catalogue."

Today, your career is your responsibility. Long gone are the days of career security, corporate career planning, and clear-cut career paths. Don't be fooled into thinking your company will help you with career management. That's exactly what happened to a midlevel network manager at a financial services company in the Midwest whose goal was to be a consultant. The company said it promoted from within, but when it came time to fill a consulting position, the company went outside. The manager was told the company needed to move quickly and that he didn't have enough experience.

The key to a successful career is to have a plan that will help you attain the highest skills in your chosen track. Without career self-management, you stand a greater chance of losing your way and a greater likelihood of being downsized out of a job by your company, even in a booming market.

Mistake #2: Chasing dollars instead of learning opportunities
It's very difficult to stick to a career-management plan in today's high-demand economy. It's easier to just say, "Show me the money." There is an old adage that says, "Make hay while the sun shines." This may be a good strategy for a farmer, but it could be the downfall of an IT professional.

While compensation is important, it shouldn't drive your career. I know a midlevel manager at a software company out West who has been out of college for four years and in management for two years. At her age, she's making twice what a person with her experience would have made five years ago, and she could leave today for at least a 20-30% salary increase. The problem is, many of the positions with higher salaries would take her out of management, where she excels, and lead her on a more technical or sales-oriented path. You'll be far better off in the long run by making decisions and taking actions based on long-term goals and interests, rather than compensation.

Mistake #3: Improper assessment of skill level or interests
Career management begins with self-assessment. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your work interests? And here's one of the most important questions: Where do you want to be in five years?

There are self-assessment tools, such as the Keirsery Temperament Sorter,, or the Career Search MAP,, that can help you evaluate skill levels and strengths. Most of these are also available through your local university. Aside from standardized tools, you'll want to ask yourself what tasks you enjoy doing the most. For example, do you like programming better than helping an associate solve a problem? If you're an excellent technician and don't want to leave programming behind, you may discover that you're not interested in a management career path.

Self-assessment tools not only help professionals gain insight into their interests, but they also highlight skills that need improvement. A top-level programmer at a Fortune 1,000 telecommunications company wanted to move into management. He had a history of being very good at everything he tried, and his bosses were willing to give him a shot. However, the Myers-Briggs psychological assessment tool used by the company said that without behavior modification, he would have a tough time as a manager. Rather than taking a stepped approach toward giving him a management role, company execs immediately promoted him into management because they thought they might lose him to a competitor. For the first time in his career he failed, because he tried to apply his technical skills to managing.

Another good way to gauge your interests is to look at your hobbies. What do you enjoy doing off line? You just might be able to put those Little League coaching skills to good use as an IT teacher/trainer, for example.

Mistake #4: Choosing the wrong career track
It's critically important for your long-term career success that you build a solid foundation of technical experience first. Even if you later decide to move into management, sales, teaching, or consulting, or perhaps become an entrepreneur, your foundation should be rooted in as broad a knowledge base as possible.

Should you decide to stay on a technical track, keep up with the latest and greatest technical skills. You may need to research the hottest technologies and then work toward attaining these skills--on the job, at school, or after hours. Keeping up with the hottest technologies is most easily accomplished by working as an IT professional at a technical, versus nontechnical, company. Within the technical track, you can choose to be a systems analyst rather than a programmer because you have a strong combination of analytical and people skills, and you enjoy assessing user needs and making system recommendations.

Self-assessment tools not only help professionals gain insight into their interests, but they also highlight skills that need improvement.
If you're a Webmaster, you'll need strong Java programming skills and conceptual design skills as well as the ability to interact with many different functional areas and management levels. If you're a member of the Webmaster's support staff, you'll need a thorough understanding of the company's current products, the customers' systems, and solid problem-solving skills. Moving beyond the technical track requires not only the necessary skills (here's where self-assessment comes in), but also a willingness to take the time to learn additional skills.

What are you doing today to prepare for a move into management or into another area, such as sales, teaching, or consulting? This doesn't necessarily mean going back to school. No matter what product or service your company provides, you should be able to find opportunities in your current job. If you want to move into management, ask for a project leadership position. If your goal is the teaching track, ask to put together a training class for new hires.

Mistake #5: Changing tracks before acquiring the needed skills
Hot growth markets make for a lot of career movement. Promotions and career changes are the norm. Before you decide to accept the next offer or your next promotion, ask yourself: Do I have the skills I'll need to be successful? Will I have the support I need? Will this position provide the training I need? Is my technical foundation broad enough? If you're moving out of a purely technical track, are you willing to forgo having the latest and greatest technical skills?

I know of a senior engineer at a midsized systems integrator on the East Coast who became a technology consultant for the same company. He'd seen many of his peers make the transition to these "fast-track" consulting positions. He thought he had the necessary sales and consulting skills, but while he had mastered the consulting skills, he had trouble on the sales side. Ultimately, his company was able to create a pure consulting role for him that didn't require sales skills, but now it will be more difficult for him to convince his boss that he can make another change, even if he does acquire all the needed skills.

Prepare like the dickens

Avoiding these five pitfalls takes careful career management. As your career choices heat up, prepare for your next move by making plans now. Begin with self-assessment. Then make choices based on your skills and what you enjoy doing. Remember that any track you decide on is good--whether it's technical, managerial, entrpreneurial, or in sales, consulting, or teaching--as long as it's where you'll be happiest and therefore most successful. So don't just pick the "success" track of the moment. As Dickens would have said, it will be a far, far better thing you do than you have ever done, and a far, far better place you go than you have ever been. //

Don DeCamp is senior vice president and chief operating officer at Computer People Inc., based in Holliston, Mass., a nationwide provider of IT staffing services and solutions. He has more than 20 years' experience in the professional staffing industry at companies including Romac International Inc. and Dunhill Staffing Systems.

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