What it takes to reach the top in IT

Ambitious IT professionals who want to build a successful career must take on board a key truth about the world in which information technology now operates.

Ambitious IT professionals who want to build a successful career must take on board a key truth about the world in which information technology now operates.

It is a world in which IT has become pervasive, seeping into every aspect of our work and daily lives. As such, it is quite a different world from that in which some of today's top IT professionals started out. Take Alan Cook, head of service business improvement and IT at Cumbria County Council. One of his earliest jobs in IT was writing programs on an Apricot computer with 640Kbyte of memory.

Or consider Joe Harley, now heading IT at the Department of Work and Pensions. He took a number of technical posts in the computer industry and local government before moving onto the management ladder.

The point is that being good at mastering the intricacies of the technologies was essential for moving onwards and upwards in the earlier days of IT. Technologies are still important, but now it is not always the techie experts who make it to the top - which is not to denigrate the contribution they make. IT could not possibly function without technical specialists - and becoming one of them is a perfectly valid route for a successful IT career. Without technical specialists, we would all soon be staring at blank screens.

Technical skills

But the people who only have technical skills are rarely those who make it right to the top in big organisations. Like Cook and Harley, they develop a much broader range of skills and capabilities. So what are these and how can you set about acquiring them?

A starting point is to understand what part IT plays in the world today - and how that affects the kind of person you need to become if you are going to end up bossing a large IT operation in a big organisation. It is a world in which more people have become IT-aware and have developed their own IT skills, although usually at a fairly superficial level.

The fact that most people can manage the basics to provide themselves with an IT service has, in a sense, made IT more democratic. IT is now there for everyone to decide what they use it for. This causes a fundamental change in the role of the IT professional.

At an individual level, it is less about providing the "one size fits all" approach to IT facilities which was the norm in earlier days of computing. Now it is more about creating a technology environment in which the users themselves choose the ways they use IT - from an almost infinite variety of combinations.

Rise of standards

Paradoxically, what has brought this about is the rise of standards in every part of IT. Standards mean all the different pieces of equipment, software and programs can interact with one another - in theory - so people can mix and match to meet their needs, often without the direct intervention of an IT specialist.

But there is much more to it than that. Because IT is now all-pervasive, it has also become the great facilitator in most organisations. Economists talk about "factors of production", such as capital and labour. In a sense, IT is now a factor of production in its own right. The plans and ambitions of most organisations could not be realised without IT's contribution.

So it is not surprising that those IT professionals who succeed most in their careers are those who become best at helping their organisations use IT to facilitate those plans and ambitions.

Consider the career of Ian Woosey, group IT and e-commerce director at Carpetright. When he joined the floor coverings retailer in 2002, his remit was to provide the IT infrastructure to enable the company to grow. Now it has 600 outlets, including some overseas, and Woosey's central role is acknowledged in his job title.

Get basics right

Woosey, like many other senior IT professionals, proved himself more than competent at getting the basics right. And if you are going to build a high-flying career in IT, it is important not to neglect those basics. "Keeping the lights on", as it is sometimes called, is the acid test of competence. No board of directors is going to think that an IT professional who cannot deliver the basics has what it takes to rise higher in the organisation. Delivering on the basics is a kind of downpayment on establishing management credibility.

But as the careers of top IT professionals show, mastering the basics is not enough by itself - there has to be something extra. But defining that "extra" is not easy, partly because all IT professionals have a different mix of skills which makes them unique in their own way. But some common themes shine through - and these are key lessons for anyone wanting a successful IT career.

The first is that all of them are good at seeing the bigger picture. At its lower levels, IT is much concerned with detail. That is not surprising because it is a technology in which correct detail is essential to effective function. That truth became evident from the moment the first bug crept into the first computer program.

Getting the detail right is just part of that basic downpayment of credibility. It is seeing the bigger picture that moves an IT professional on from there. So a common trait in the most successful IT leaders is that they understand and share the ambitions of the organisations they work for. And they understand those ambitions at a deeper level than the technologists who spend their working lives making the kit operate.

Corporate ambitions

Understanding and sharing corporate ambitions at a more profound level is important because IT professionals who move onwards and upwards can demonstrate to the people who run their organisations what part IT has to play in realising those ambitions. For most of its history, business IT has been on the receiving end of decision-making. IT professionals have been told by managers in other parts of the organisation what is wanted and are asked to provide it.

But now the most successful organisations in the private and public sectors realise that IT has an important role to play in sketching out their vision of the future. IT professionals who rise to the top of large organisations are those who have a vision of the contribution IT can make in achieving that ambition. They are givers of ideas rather than just takers of orders.

And that raises another important skill you will need to have a very successful IT career - the ability to communicate with management peers at the highest levels, including board members. That means the ability to move out of the realms of techie-speak and discuss business issues, strategies and tactics on equal terms with other senior managers.

This is a skill that Abby Ewen, director of business transformation at global law firm Simmons & Simmons, realised was important. She says she can talk technology with the best of them, but also developed the ability to talk business strategy with the senior partners in the firm.

That ability to communicate, to talk the same language, enables you to win the confidence of your board and senior managers. And that, in turn, means they will be willing to entrust you with the kind of mission-critical projects that usually cost millions of pounds and are vital in enabling the organisation to achieve its ambitions.

People skills

But no matter how clever, energetic and committed you are in helping your organisation harness the power of IT to achieve its aims, you cannot do it alone. So it is no surprise that the ability to get on with, and manage, people is another critical skill for IT professionals who reach the top.

In fact, there is more to it than that. IT professionals who become leaders are invariably able to inspire their teams with the ambitions of their organisations. So rather than being a disparate group of people doing some work, the teams become unified groups working together to achieve defined and clearly understood aims.

Few IT professionals will have all these skills when they first set out on their career path. But what those who ultimately succeed will have is the ambition to acquire them. They will have a clear focus on what they need to do to move up in their IT career. And, like Warner Music Group senior vice-president and CIO Maggie Miller, who used the daily commute earlier in her career to study for an MBA, they will put in the effort required.

Finally, there are ways in which moving to the top in an IT career can, increasingly, be a step into a wider world of business. For years, IT professionals complained that no matter how well they succeeded, they were corralled in their own world of technology and rarely had the chance to sit on the board, let alone play a part in leading their organisations. But that is now changing.

IT is now a realistic stepping stone to a successful business career - and one without boundaries.

This article is an extract from the new book, How to build a successful career in IT, by Peter Bartram. Computer Weekly has three copies of the book to give away. To win a copy, send an e-mail entitled "How to build a successful IT career" to [email protected] and we will send a copy to the first three UK IT professionals we hear from.


Now buy the book

How to build a successful career in IT is a new book that features inspiring stories from 15 senior IT professionals talking about how they built their careers. The book, published by New Venture Publishing in co-operation with Computer Weekly, is available online.

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment