The Answer Is 9, But Do You Know What The Question Is?

by drjim on November 5, 2009

Your Technical Skills Aren't Going To Get You Your Next Promotion...

Your Technical Skills Aren’t Going To Get You Your Next Promotion…

What is it going to take for you to get promoted? What set of skills as an IT Leader do you need to develop in order to have any chance at moving up to the next level? If you don’t know what you need to know, then how is that promotion going to happen?

It turns out that once upon a time that the oldest man in the IT department at my company sat me down and explained to me what it was going to take to move up in my IT department. Now I’ll pass that information on to you.

The Oldest Man In IT

Ah, the early days in your IT career. All you really needed to know was one programming language and maybe some database skills and you were off and running. Nowadays it seems like you’ve got to know three or four languages, at least a couple of database dialects, and one or two web-based frameworks to get your job done.

What I hadn’t realized in my youthful exuberance was that learning more languages, databases, or web skills was NOT what the company wanted me to do in order to be considered for my next management promotion. This is what Carl told me on that day that changed my career forever.

Carl was the oldest guy working in the company’s IT department. Nobody actually knew how long he had been there, but we all knew that it was longer than we had been on board. Carl’s cube had the most amazing collection of “stuff” from magnetic tapes stacked on the floor to punch cards left over from when the “big transition” had happened to online storage. Oh, and he had a lot of ashtrays from when you could still smoke at your desk – that’s how long he had been on board.

Life Lessons From Carl

Carl and I got along fantastically. I don’t think that I had any special qualities, it was probably just that I was less of a young jerk than everyone else. The fact that I could admit when I was wrong and ask for help probably went a long way also.

At any rate, after I had been in the same frontline programming job for a couple of years, I happened to be having lunch with Carl one day and I blurted out that I was unhappy with my job. I told him that after two years I thought that I deserved to be promoted and I couldn’t figure out why it hadn’t happened yet.

Carl, in his slow, easy going way, asked me what I was going to do about this. I told him that I was going to show the powers that be that I deserved to be promoted: I was going to sign up for every training course and get every technical certification that I could. Carl sorta smiled at me and said “You can do all that, but it’s not going to get you promoted.

Just How Do You Get Promoted In IT?

Carl went on to explain to me that I was looking at the problem all wrong. He said that in IT as in all parts of a business, management really just does two things. Oh yeah, sometimes you’ll see exceptions to the rule in IT where managers will still be coding, but watch them: they probably won’t go far above their current position.

What Carl told me next is what has stuck with me for all of these years. He told me that in IT, just as in the rest of the company, mangers don’t actually do anything. That is, they don’t actually create things. Instead, the work that they do can be broken down into two separate tasks: they manage people and they manage budgets. If you understand this, he told me, you’ll be on your way to being promoted.

“Great, I don’t have experience doing any of that” I can remember telling him. Carl looked at me and said “Well then, there are nine things that you are going to have to learn before you can be promoted.” You can bet that I was reaching for a napkin to write down this golden advice. Here’s the list of things that I was going to have to learn to do that Carl shared with me:

  1. Understand your workforce
  2. Active listening
  3. How to be truly appreciative
  4. How to communicate clearly
  5. Use humor wisely
  6. Inspire a team
  7. Organization
  8. Time management
  9. Budget management

I can remember looking at that list somewhat in disbelief – I had none of these skills, how the heck was I going to prepare to be promoted?

What Does All Of This Mean For You?

Knowing what it takes to get promoted into the higher levels of IT management is, of course, only one part of the battle. I would argue that knowing what you need to learn is the first and the most important part of getting your next promotion.

You are not going to find all of the information that you need in one place. Sorry, going out and getting that MBA is not the silver bullet that will get you your next promotion.

What you are going to have to do is launch a multi-pronged strategy to acquire the skills that you need. Initial knowledge can be picked up by doing some reading; however, to really learn what you need to know, you are going to have to find ways to actually do the work in the real world before you get promoted.

Everything is possible, you just need to realize that even in IT, technical skills will only take you so far. Learning the skills that you need to become an IT leader is what is going to allow you to get to the next level in your career.

What single skill do you think that is a must have in order to get promoted in IT?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Bad things happen. Sometimes they are not all that bad – key employees leaving for example is bad, but not really all that “bad”. However, sometimes things really are bad: staff die or become seriously ill for long periods of time. What’s your plan for when this happens? What’s that, you don’t have a plan? You think that it’s the role of HR to take care of personal issues like this? Guess again…

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