There is a conundrum about IT professionals who make it to the top. They do everything the same and they do everything differently.
Happily, for any IT professional setting out on a career and hoping to make it to the top, there is a solution to that conundrum. The most successful IT professionals are able to answer very clearly two key questions: what do I want out of my career and how do I plan to get it?
When IT professionals answer the first question they come up with radically different answers. So, for example, Heather Allan, corporate services director at The Global Fund in Geneva, wants the opportunity to contribute to the world fight against AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Ian Woosey, group IT and e-commerce director at Carpetright, likes the buzz he gets from helping to build a successful international business in a competitive market.
Joe Harley, IT director general and CIO at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), seeks the opportunity to give something back to society by helping to manage more effectively one of the largest government departments - and one which helps the less fortunate members of society. And for Jeremy Garside, head of technology at the London Symphony Orchestra, it's a no-brainer - he wants the chance to work with his first love: music. So IT professionals display strikingly different attitudes to what they want from their work.
Talk the talk
Yet when these same IT professionals answer that second question - about how they plan to achieve their ambitions - they arrive at answers which are strikingly similar. And that's because the most successful IT professionals - let's call them IT mentors, for they all have much to teach younger IT staffers setting out on their careers - all approach the business of building an IT career in a similar way. They have all discovered that there are some things which mark out successful IT leaders from their less successful colleagues.
And it's not just about who has the best technical skills. It is, perhaps, an irony that some of the people who succeed best in IT careers are those whose technical skills are not necessarily in the first rank and freely admit it. That's not to say they cannot talk bits and bytes with the best of them, as Abby Ewen, director of business transformation at the international law firm Simmons & Simmons, puts it. What marks out Ewen, and other successful IT leaders, is she can also have a serious conversation about strategy and tactics on equal terms with other senior executives in her organisation.
It is not just that the most successful IT professionals studiously avoid turning themselves into their friendly neighbourhood nerd. More, it is that they spend a lot of time taking a close look at what their organisation is trying to achieve. And they think a lot about the role IT can play in realising those ambitions.
Everything they do focuses on how the organisation can achieve its strategy more effectively. So, for example, it is hardly surprising that Sharon Bevis-Hoover, now director of global IT transformation for Coca-Cola, was invited back to the US in 2009, from her job in Europe, by Coke's new chief executive, Muhtar Kent, who wanted to sharpen the soft drink maker's competitive edge and knew that IT would be a key to achieving it.
The most successful IT professionals power their careers by getting noticed by the people who matter. But the successful don't do that at the expense of others. In fact, the reverse is the case. The successful actually provide the inspirational leadership which helps their whole team to deliver superior performance. That's because they understand that building effective teams is the secret to delivering on-time and on-budget projects - the kind that get noticed in the boardroom for the right reasons.
One of the skills the successful bring to team-building is their ability to spot talent in others. It's not just a case of seeing what people are capable of doing now. The IT mentors have a knack of seeing what other IT professionals could be capable of contributing, given the right training and development opportunities. And all that means they must take as much interest - if not more - in people as in technology.
Graham Johnson, now transformation director at Ecclesiastical Insurance, is a case in point. He studied electronics at a top university, and could have ended up as a microchip designer. But at university he used to sneak into psychology lectures because he was fascinated by what makes people tick. It is a fascination which has meant that he has become one of those well-rounded managers who feel at ease in the executive suite.
Our IT mentors made it to the top because they demonstrated they can deliver projects which make a difference to the way their organisation works. That could be, as with Harley, by successfully delivering a raft of massively complex projects at DWP.
But it could be at a simpler level. Alan Cook, now head of service business improvement and IT at Cumbria County Council, found this lesson out early in his career. He was working for Leeds City Council in the 1980s and found a way to use a primitive Apricot Zen 1 computer with 640kbyte memory to help calculate building estimates. The work was one factor that helped see Cook nominated for a year-long leadership course that later helped to power his career forward.
Since the days when Cook was playing with his Apricot, IT has become a much more potent topic of discussion in boardrooms. The directors who sign the cheques want to know what their money buys. Even more important, they want to know how IT can help them realise their business plans. IT professionals who can explain what IT can contribute in helping to realise a business's vision shift themselves into the promotion fast-track.
Or, perhaps, as in the case of Richard Cross, technology director at ITV, the ability to relate IT to corporate vision could help to secure a plum post. When Carlton Communications merged with Granada to form ITV, only one of the CIOs from the merged companies could occupy the new top post. Cross, who had been chief technology officer at Carlton, went head to head with his Granada counterpart. Cross believes he won the post because of his ability to articulate his ideas about the future contribution that technology could make to the newly-merged company.
The Cross experience raises another interesting point about why some IT professionals succeed more than others. They are simply much better at performing in job interviews. Jacqueline Guichelaar, now global head of transition and deployment services within production management across the application and infrastructure groups at Deutsche Bank, recalls the time in her career when she was one of 73 applicants for a job with IBM. She had not expected to be offered the job but found herself moving through stage after stage of the rigorous selection process as the 73 were pared down to a shortlist of five.
She admits she was petrified by the final interview but decided to be brutally honest about what she could do and where she would need more experience and coaching. Her honest approach won the day. Nowadays, Guichelaar is more likely to be interviewing hopefuls for posts within Deutsche Bank. She notes that few IT applicants excel at summarising their strengths and weaknesses.
And, perhaps, that is because they are not as good at analysing their own strengths and weaknesses as the successful IT professionals. Self-knowledge is a powerful engine for self-development as the most successful note. Not least because, when they've identified their weaknesses, they can do something about rectifying them. Guichelaar, for example, attended about 50 training courses during her time with IBM.
Moreover, successful IT professionals organise their lives so they make the most of every moment to build up their credentials. Maggie Miller, now in New York as senior vice-president and CIO of Warner Music Group, earlier in her career used to spend her morning commute on the London Underground studying for an MBA. Miller illustrates a key quality of the successful CIOs - a willingness to move out of their 'comfort zone' and challenge themselves.
But here is another lesson. The best IT leaders can only challenge themselves in organisations that offer opportunities to do so. That means plotting a career path which takes in organisations that offer chances to develop a range of skills and show what they can achieve. Karen Stanton, now CIO at Kings College London, says it is important that the organisation she is thinking of moving to has an appetite for change - and that she can see how IT can contribute to that change agenda.
In short, it is all about working for organisations that know where they're going - and what they want you to do to help them get there.
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This was first published in May 2010