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Today's IT professional is much different from even five years ago. In addition to our IT savvy, we need business savvy. We have to be able to communicate with a wide variety of people. Even when we’re in an enterprise IT department, everyone is considered a customer. Today's IT professional must be just that: professional. We can no longer afford to be nerds.

There is also the matter of technology itself. If we expect vendors to stay on the cutting edge, we also need to adapt. We all want to be an expert at everything we put our minds to, but that’s not practical. It’s much more effective to be conversant in many subjects, fluent in a few, and expert in our current responsibility, knowing that it will continue to change. These days, organizations value people who know how to find what they need to do their job, do what needs to be done, and move on.

The way I see it, reinventing myself means embracing change and innovating my own techniques and tools so that I can deliver results that others find valuable. We need to differentiate ourselves, just as organizations do. The innovations we make can be technical, but they can also be related to business, relationships, communication, etc. These strategies should help.

Strategy #1

Identify your individual strengths and how they can contribute to organizational success, and build on those strengths. Try a mix of training courses, a mentoring relationship, or a new project outside of your comfort zone.

Strategy #2

You may wonder about your weaknesses—everyone does. I’ve heard that Tiger Woods wasn’t great in the sand trap, but instead of accepting his weakness, he worked it till he was good enough to get out of the trap. Identify your weaknesses, exploit them, and turn them into a strength—or at least to the point that they are not career enders.

Strategy #3

Cross train within your own team. There’s no need to go deep; ask your peers about issues that matter to them and learn enough so that you can talk intelligently with them about those issues and share the load. Learn about tools your team uses: the terms, the architecture, and how they work. The best ways to do this are to take an online course and read the “getting started” product docs. If you’re like me (and I suspect you are), it’ll be hard to avoid getting sucked into playing with whatever product you’re learning about. Avoid that temptation; just get “good enough” and then take on more. The positive side effects of this intra-team cross training are numerous: growth of mutual respect, better teamwork, improved relationships, and becoming more valuable to the business.

Strategy #4

Cross-train across practices. If you’re an infrastructure management expert, reach across the aisle and get training in, say, security or service management. As I mentioned in my last post, don’t get married to a tool. (I’m sure there are some spouses who think they’re married to a tool—no, not that kind…) What I mean is that there’s a difference between being an expert and being pigeon-holed. Think of it this way: Every system integrates with other systems, so learn how your area of specialty interacts with others. If you can converse in the concepts and terms of your peers across the aisle, you will gain respect and improve the quality of your own ideas.  Like learning another language, you don’t need to be fluent, but you should know the basics when you’re in a foreign place. In any case, dive right in: You will survive and prosper.

Strategy #5

Expand your horizons to understand how your company does business. Trace your job all the way up the chain of command, understand how the initiatives you’re working on (or want to work on) relate to portfolio management and architecture, and become aware of how they relate to the organization’s strategic goals, business model and mission.

Strategy #6

If you want to dive deeper and your company doesn’t offer appropriate courses, take or audit a few business or IT management courses. You don’t have to go whole hog and get a degree.  Many universities offer certificate programs. For example, in the mid-2000s I took a series of courses at UC San Diego toward a certificate in Systems Engineering that I found extremely helpful as a systems administrator and that laid the foundation for the skills I use as an IT architect. Another favorite course was Accounting for Non-Accountants (again, UCSD). I chose these courses specifically because they were glaring gaps in my knowledge (and, honestly, I had quite a bit of fear that they were beyond my capability to comprehend). But I faced my fears, took on something way outside of my normal job, and the payoff has been huge. Succeeding in these courses convinced me that I could continue my education in mid-career, which I did, completing my BSCIS in 2005 and MS in IT Management in 2015. Just because you may have failed at something in high school doesn’t mean you’re incapable of learning as an adult. On the contrary, your life experience may have set the foundation to learn a skill that could become your new specialty!

These strategies will help you do more than simply weather the storms of change or embrace change; they will help you become an agent of change! I hope that this will help you adapt and innovate in your roadmap to personal reinvention. Good luck!

If you want to chew the fat or comment about this post, comment below or email me at sean.onion@ca.com.

Sean Onion

IT is Changing: Are You?

Posted by Sean Onion Employee Jul 25, 2017

There was a time when personal reinvention was something you did only in the face of a major life event, like losing your job or a divorce. But as the Internet has grown larger, the world has grown smaller, and competition has grown fiercer, we should explore the possibility of reinventing ourselves every year or two. It’s no longer a recovery technique—it’s a career and life management tool.

Plenty of books and blogs help with techniques; what many lack is advice on where to focus your efforts: Where do you start? What’s your roadmap?

Fortunately, you don’t have to figure out the answers to those questions alone. You’re surrounded by people and systems that can help.

A great place to start is the organization you work for. Ask yourself this: Do you know how your company makes money? Better yet, do you know how you do or can help your company make money? I know, these seem like obvious questions, and you may believe you know the answers.  But do you know them well enough to formalize them in writing and show them to your peers? Your manager? Would you show them to your boss’s boss? How has the picture changed in the last year, and how will it change over the next 12 months?

You see, whether they like it or not, the application economy is forcing most businesses to change—radically. Organizations that don’t adapt will wither and fade away. Kodak created the first digital camera but shelved it due to fears that it would undercut film sales.  Blockbuster tried to buy out Netflix and doubled down on BlueRay, rightly predicting that streaming media would undercut its DVD business. Xerox invented many technologies we use today but didn’t exploit them for fear that they would undercut their photocopier business. See a theme here? Fear and protection of old business models will always lose out to courage and forward-thinking.

We in IT may think we’re safe—after all, IT is causing the change, right? But it’s not just the nature of business that’s changing—the nature of IT is changing. Whereas IT used to focus inward and was considered necessary overhead for running the business (like typewriters to my father’s generation), IT has moved closer to customers and is strategic to the business.

What we do no longer affects just internal operations; we affect the customer directly. And vice versa: Customers have a more direct and daily impact on what IT delivers and how we deliver it.

This shift means that our jobs are constantly changing. The skills, knowledge, and tools that used to serve you well are now out of date—or soon will be. To determine which skills, knowledge, and tools you now need, look to your company’s evolution, find out what has already changed and determine what changes are around the corner.

Next time I talk with you, I’ll spell out a plan of action. In the meantime, if you want to chew the fat or comment about this post, comment below or email me at sean.onion@ca.com.

During the 20 years I’ve been involved with CA Technologies as an employee or customer, I’ve watched the company continually adapt to changes in the software industry. That’s one reason I’m intrigued by CA CTO Otto Berkes’ book, Digitally Remastered, which addresses how changes wrought by the application economy affect all organizations and how organizations can adapt to those changes. 

In my first few blog posts, I’m excited to talk about how the changes that come along with the application economy also require people to adapt. This is especially true for us in IT. Software engineering is maturing, automation and virtualization are constantly evolving, security boundaries are shifting, and almost everyone now has some kind of customer contact. Just as organizations are reinventing themselves to adapt to change, so must we.

In the spirit of CA Services experts helping companies eliminate barriers between ideas and outcomes, I’ll talk about a barrier to IT professionals’ career growth and cover some ways that we can transform that barrier into a valuable outcome—career growth and fulfillment.

If you’ve been feeling a certain level of career inertia, feel trapped in your current role, or don’t really know what’s next for you—if you’re looking for a change but don’t know how to go about it—I believe I can offer some useful advice based on my own experience.

School’s Not out for Summer

Alice Cooper’s classic “School’s out for Summer” to the contrary, the learning process never ends. Sorry to burst any bubbles, but school (high school, college, even grad school) wasn’t a bridge to cross—it was training for a lifelong pattern. To keep current in any job—whether it’s manual labor or sitting behind a desk—homework is a reality. To move to the next “grade” in our career—or life—we apply what we’ve already learned and add new knowledge to our quivers.

Do you know someone who has decided that he or she has learned enough? I frequently meet IT professionals who won’t read technical manuals on personal time. They’ve decided that the cost and burden of further education is their employer’s (surrogate parents’?) responsibility, not theirs. They’ve abandoned the rudder needed to navigate life’s changes.

I’m not going to try to convince you to get more formal education. Instead, I want to show you ways to focus your efforts in a rapidly changing world.

 

My Personal Story: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

During the 2000s I was a Unicenter architect at a financial software company. We put a lot of work into making a world-class monitoring system. Then we hired a guy who rebelled against all of our best practices. He introduced a couple of new products, Spectrum and eHealth, but he didn’t go through a formal process; he went straight to the developers!

Suddenly I was viewed as “the old guy”! Any argument I made for improvement or remediation was perceived as dragging my feet. Looking back with the benefits of hindsight and maturity, I’m sure I contributed to the problem: I came across as inflexible, and my inexperience with the “new stuff” didn’t help.

So I took a radical—and ironic—turn. I took another job—as a Spectrum administrator, knowing next to nothing about the product. Fortunately, my new employers were looking for more than product skill. They recognized what they called “soft skills” and valued my ability to adapt quickly. 

In the process I learned valuable lessons. One was the value of breaking down the walls between Operations and Development. What I mean by that is that this new guy crossed the aisle and introduced a technical innovation directly to the developers (who, in turn, were closer to the customer). We had already stabilized operations monitoring, so he didn’t worry about that; he worked on making the business better. Instead of focusing on our processes, he aligned his effort with those who had their fingers on the customers’ pulse; he moved closer to the customer. 

Another lesson was this: Don’t get married to a tool. Understand the purpose of technology: Businesses employ technology innovations for competitive advantage, not for the sake of playing with cool tools. If goals change, or new innovations are needed, then either the tool has to change or you have to change tools. Just as a valued vendor constantly invests in and improves its portfolio, we also need to keep our personal portfolios fresh and current.

Which brings me to the third lesson. We have to embrace constant change. Our product knowledge is worth little compared to our ability to adapt and innovate. For both organizations and people, change is necessary for continuous improvement.

Next time, I’ll go into a bit more context and start to outline a plan of action. In the meantime, if you want to chew the fat or comment about this post, comment below or email me at sean.onion@ca.com.