How to shine in a small IT world

It's easy to get attention from the boss in a small shop -- but SMBs are also tough places to hide your mistakes.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 39% of high-tech professionals work for businesses with 500 or fewer employees.

That's a lot of employees, often vying for fewer promotions that might be available at larger ones. For IT workers looking to advance their careers, there are challenges unique to smaller organizations.

"Oftentimes, there is only one person managing a particular group, and that person could potentially remain in the position for many years," said Ryan Gilmore, branch manager of Robert Half Technology in San Jose, Calif.

Soft skills will really determine who gets the position if it comes down to two equally qualified candidates.

Andrea Nierenberg, author Nonstop Networking: How To Improve Your Life, Luck and Career


On a brighter note, organizations that employ fewer employees can easily grow job descriptions to include greater responsibilities, said Janet Scarborough, founder of Bridgeway Career Development. "As you become more central to the success of the small to midsized enterprise, you are in a better position to ask for higher compensation to reflect your changed position."

Career missteps

In attempting to climb the corporate ladder in a small company, there are some common mistakes that people tend to make. For starters, many employees simply overextend themselves.


"Many individuals set unrealistic timelines for completing goals and then are not able to follow through on those obligations," Gilmore said.

If a person develops a reputation for not keeping promised timelines, this could be negative for his or her career.

In addition to setting appropriate expectations, many IT workers struggle with knowing how to prioritize tasks, Gilmore said. When faced with a job that impacts various corporate divisions, IT professionals "don't necessarily know how to manage distractions that come up during the day." In smaller companies, it's less likely there is a gatekeeper, or supervisor, in place to protect them against distractions. And it's also less likely that these IT pros would be assigned assistants to help manage their less important tasks.

Then, there is the need for networking, which isn't always so easy when you're working at a company that isn't even close to being a household name.

"If you work for a company without the brand name recognition of a larger company, it is even more important to make connections within your career field and to continually upgrade your skills and knowledge," Scarborough said.

Keys to success

So what should an employee do to rise through the ranks of a smaller organization?

"Network internally within the company and build alliances with people in other departments," advises Andrea Nierenberg, author of Nonstop Networking: How To Improve Your Life, Luck and Career.

Remember that you should build relationships with higher-ups, peers and people you might supervise or supersede in a company masthead. This helps to raise your profile and visibility when advancement opportunities do come along.

Maintaining and improving your technical skills is crucial, Gilmore said. IT workers should stay current on the latest technology developments by reading trade publications and keeping abreast of news developments. This, along with technical certifications on the newest versions of existing IT products, is one way to show your potential and passion for career advancement.

And don't forget those soft skills. "Soft skills will really determine who gets the position if it comes down to two equally qualified candidates," Gilmore emphasized.

Particularly when striving for management positions, demonstrating the capability to communicate effectively and displaying interpersonal skills will definitely help in career advancement. It is important to keep this in mind at all times and not just around the time of one's performance review.

"Learn to be strategic and politically savvy while staying authentic and true to core values," Scarborough said. "In a small company environment, co-workers have even more opportunity to observe how well you interact with others."

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