Reflecting on his entire career in IT, Scott Hicar, CIO of Benchmark Electronics, shares his advice to new and rising technology professionals.

As we continue to see the incorporation and expansion of technology across all aspects of our lives, my optimism for young people entering the IT field, or those with more experience who are advancing in their IT careers, remains incredibly upbeat. Even amid the current climate of uncertainty, I am seeing the IT job market return to the strong growth that existed pre-pandemic.

In the early part of a career in IT, the opportunities and roles we are hired for are heavily weighted toward our technical abilities — network or server administration, application development in specific languages, particular database types, or specialization in the many packaged software or cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms. Cybersecurity includes all those aspects within its own body of work, but early roles remain heavily weighted toward technical competencies. Even supporting skill roles like program manager or Agile Scrum Master are technical in nature.

Recently, I reflected on the opportunities, experiences and, yes, even the good luck I have had on my journey to CIO and other IT leadership roles. Here are some emerging themes I wish to share with rising IT professionals as they consider the next steps of their career.

Be a Brave Learner

My first recommendation is to be a continuous learner who is unafraid to try new things. This is especially important early in your career, when your value to the team lies in your technical skills. Always look for the opportunity to expand your technical skills laterally and more broadly. The ability to become proficient in a completely new technology is a lifetime skill.

I started my career as a software developer. I remember finishing my first application at my first real job, and thinking that I had nailed it because it was accepted by the user community and it seemed to meet their needs. My manager, however, reviewed the code base and let me know that I probably wasn’t meant for a career in software development. He kindly told me that he could have written the same application with about half the code and with a much simpler plan of attack. That honest feedback was great because it motivated me to think laterally, move to another area of technology, and learn all that I could about it.

Learning opportunities are everywhere. I encourage you to attend local networking events that are vendor-sponsored or organized by your local SIM (Society for Information Management) chapter, or to volunteer for a project outside your subject matter, because working in a cross-functional team in a new area will provide tremendous learning opportunities.

Explore Leadership Opportunities

Once you have proficient technical skills, it is critical to explore leadership opportunities and challenge yourself to learn how to lead others. This usually starts with small teams and grows from there based on experience and results. Just like technology, leading is a skill to be developed through formal training and informal mentorship.

In IT we have two main roads — or tracks — to choose between as we advance in the industry, and many hybrids of the two depending on the needs of your company. The first is a technical track where our value to the team is in the breadth and then depth of our technology mastery. The second is a leadership track where our value shifts from specific to general technical competencies (program planning, scoping, estimating, budgeting) and gains a focus on leadership. Talk with your manager and explain that you are interested in testing and developing your leadership skills. Great managers are always willing to help.  

 

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Know What Motivates You

My third recommendation is to be honest with yourself when it comes to the things you love about working in IT, and pursue those opportunities as a priority. Long-term career success requires you to do some honest reflection about where your passion lies, what gets you excited and creates your highest level of personal engagement. I have seen people who automatically believed that focusing on leadership was the only path to advancement and a better salary, but it became apparent over time that it wasn’t what they enjoyed doing. If you’re struggling to identify your passion, seek advice from friends and colleagues you trust, or talk to your HR business partner. Many companies offer personality profile tools that can help you learn about what motivates you.

Be Curious About the Business

Technology implemented in a vacuum doesn’t have any impact. Value is created only when we apply our IT skills to the businesses we work in. Learn all you can about your company, what it does, how the money flows in, and out, and how you can help your customers (internal and external) solve their problems through the application of technology. It is through the application of technology to business problems that we deliver value.

When you start a new job, be sure to allocate time to learn all you can about the business, the company strategy, competitors, and what is holding the company back from overachieving its goals. One way to do that is to reach out and schedule informational interviews, even with people from groups well outside those you usually work in. When considering how I became CIO, I give a lot of credit to exposure to the business teams I worked closely with on various projects, and applying technology to help them achieve business results.  

Be brave, curious and passionate. These are incredible times to be in IT, and the future is brighter than ever!

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