IT Career Killer?

I’ve been around IT for a long time now (about 20 years).  What have I learned as far as managing a career goes?  Here are some of the things I have come to realize about career advancement in the Information Technology field:

Fact 1:  Death, Taxes and Change

For normal people, they only need to know that death and taxes are the only things assured in life.  Well, in the IT field, there’s a third, and that’s change.  This actually hit home back in the 90’s when I was starting my actual career (as opposed to “playing” for the love of PCs).  See, there was this Great Debate amongst IT professionals in the enterprise boardrooms of the world:  VINES (Banyan) vs. NDS (Novell) vs. Active Directory (Microsoft).  Experts in all camps declared theirs as the best.  Regardless of which was actually “best”, we all know the victor in that war.  This gets me to point 1:

You WILL need to pivot your career.  I would say that I have pivoted so many times I can’t keep track.  Now, my case is a bit odd in that lots of this pivoting was due to being a trainer for 3 years when I was fresh out of school.  My pivots in training took me from HP-UX to Microsoft NT to Microsoft SMS Server.  Then a major pivot to being an senior systems engineer, followed by security SME for EDS, another pivot to architecting an ASP (like SaaS 1.0) solution for a startup, followed by pivoting to Federal Government in assessment and security architecture, then yet another major pivot to training and consulting in Cloud Security.

I’m not going to get into personal numbers in this article, but I would guess that due to these pivots, I am making roughly three to four times as much as I would have made if I hadn’t pivoted.  Either that, or I’d be out of a job today had I rested on laurels.  I don’t think there are too many positions available for a Microsoft SMS or NT 4.0 security engineer today.  Call it a hamster wheel, call it what you want, but make your pivots count!

Career Killer 1:  Thinking Pivots are just for start-ups.

 

Fact 2:  Companies Come, Companies Go.

If you are an HR person, please close this article now.  Ok, now that the HR folks are gone, let me get to fact 2:  what exactly does being the “only one who knows how internal systems work” bring you?  It brings lots of reliance on your services, which leads to lots of calls and emails throughout the day…every day for the rest of your life.  Vacations?  You are too important for days off.

This may work for your personal situation, which is great.  However, this will also lead to what I’m calling “Career Lock-In”.  You are the expert, the king of the keyboard – in your particular environment.  Now let’s say you are the king of the mail systems.  Good for you!  You optimized, tweaked and even showed the vendor what the system can do with heavy customization.  Now, what’s the 5 year outlook for that technology?  How are you going to pivot when you are absolutely essential to keeping the mail up and running?  Your employer won’t let you advance your career because you’re too valuable just the way you are – Career Lock-in.

You have more value to a new employer than you do your current employer.  You have more value to subsequent employers or contracts because you have a wide exposure to how multiple organizations run, not just one.  Of course, everyone’s position is different.  For those in Government with 20 years of service already, bailing on a pension probably isn’t a logical option.  For others though, jumping increases your value dramatically.

Career Killer 2:  Staying in the same company too long. 

Fact 3:  Industry Matters

The sector the employer is in becomes absolutely critical to your career in IT.  I have seen this one first hand with a friend of mine.  He was in a law firm for around a decade.  Raises were few and far between because the law firm had a pay band established for IT resources.  To quote another lawyer: “$1000 a day for a computer guy?  There’s no way in the world I would ever consider paying $500 a day, yet alone $1000”.

You need to be in companies that realize the value IT brings to the business.  If they don’t get it today, you’ll be waiting a very long time until they do get it (think new CIO hired specifically to shake up IT).  In the meantime, you receive less pay and worst of all, you are shackled with the same and likely antiquated technology.  Let’s be serious, a legal firm of 500 lawyers will never prioritize IT and your career suffers as a result.

On the other hand, working in an environment that lives and breathes based on its ability to innovate will generally be more accepting of living on the razors edge.  Knowing what others don’t is where your value proposition needs to be.  If you are just another engineer that knows what a million people in India do, and they will work for 1/10th of the cost you carry, you can bet some bean counter somewhere will be recommending replacing you with commoditized labor (aka off-shoring).

Career Killer 3:  Working in companies where IT is not seen as a primary driver of corporate growth.

 

Fact 4:  Not investing in yourself

You NEED to invest in yourself.  You NEED to schedule vacations and you NEED a proper family/work split.  Honestly, when I started, I was young, dumb and full of…drive.  Lunches and vacations were for the weak I said.  I took my first vacation 5 ½ years (yes, 66 months) after starting off my career – A full week off!

Certifications are the single biggest driver behind your career growth.  Yes, they are a pain to study for.  Yes, the training can be expensive.  I guess you need to ask yourself though, how much is your time worth to you?  If you have little value attached to your time, self-study is a valid option.  If however, your time is of value, does it not make sense then to take a training offering and be certified in weeks rather than months (that’s assuming you stick to the self-study of course)?

To those that say certification doesn’t mean you know jack, I say how do you prove you know jack today?  Like it or not, certification is the new degree in our industry.  Mock the CISSP all you want, get yourself a little “Not a CISSP” button and wear it with pride.  Just know the vast majority of employers in our industry want certified personnel so they can say they have certified staff onboard to win contracts.  Looking to be a consultant down the road?  You will be required to get certified, either that or work for ever declining per diems.

Let me finish this section with a very simple (and very conservative) equation using a consulting model (all figures in USD):

Cost of Cloud Security Alliance Training (includes CCSK test attempt):  $1795

Days of training: 3

Total cost of training and loss of income (@$500 a day): $3295

Daily Rate of IT Generalist:  $500

Daily Rate of Cloud Security Expert: $750 (an increase of $250 a day)

Duration of Contract: 30 Days

Increase in income based on new certification:  $7,500

Time to recoup training and certification expense ($3295/$250):  13.18 days

This example clearly shows that with an investment of $3,295, you are now earning $7,500 more in 30 days.  I don’t want to get too Tom Vu or some other get rich quick commercial guy, but you can be worth more…much more.  Extrapolate the above numbers and they add up to a pretty substantial sum over a year.

Career Killer 4:  Not using certifications to sell yourself to employers

 

Fact 5:  You really do need a crystal ball

Timing is everything in life, including your career.  When I left the Federal Government and went “all-in” with cloud services back in 2010, I did so because I knew the longer one stays stagnant in tech, the quicker one’s value diminishes.  Soon afterwards, I was told by a close friend “You’ll be living in a cardboard box in a year”.  This was followed up shortly with a conversation with a Director General in the Canadian Government who was unclear with the name and asked “did you say clown computing?”.  I believed in my convictions and acted upon them.  You need to do the same.

To me, investing cloud computing was a no-brainer, just like I believe DevOps (or ArchOps) is a future winner.  Bottom line is this:  You need to be where the industry is going, not where it is, or has been.  Being ahead of the curve makes you extremely valuable.  Study up, practice, get certified, be a leader in a new technology.

Career Killer 5:  Not anticipating industry shifts in technology

I hope this article is useful to your career advancement.  If you are looking to advance your career in Cyber Security, we offer training from the leaders in security certifications including (ISC)2, Cloud Security Alliance, CompTIA and EC-Council.

Thanks for reading,

G

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