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Navigating-a-Long-Term-Career-in-the-Technology-Industry
Craig Chatterton
Thursday, June 1, 2006
Navigating a successful career in the technology industry is harder than it looks. At face value the tremendous job opportunities and competitive wages make it seem simple: go to a good engineering college, get a degree, and land a series of promotions with branded companies. Seasoned professionals who have lived through several economic cycles, however, know better. In that sense, history can be a good teacher. Let’s explore this further.

Over the past two decades, the dynamics in the technology industry has changed in many ways. From a business perspective, there has been a significant shift from the large conglomerates to large focused businesses through consolidation. Big companies are also concentrating more on integration, acquisition and distribution channels. And small companies are now leveraging India – once the exclusive domain of companies with large infrastructures. Technology advances have also changed the way business is conducted. The Internet, VoIP, and new business models such as Software as a Service are challenging traditional assumptions.

From a career standpoint, the premise of job security in large companies is no longer a given. Furthermore, most new jobs – at least in the U.S. - are in small companies.

What does all this mean? In at nutshell, what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow.

In the last ten years of the IT industry, the business focus and the job scene has changed significantly. In the early to mid 90’s, offshore projects were in vogue and the job scene revolved around joining multinational companies, job-hopping and focusing on the technology and title. While there were plenty of jobs to go around, many people favored large companies because of job security and benefits.

The late 90’s brought the dotcom buzz, Y2K, and sweat equity in the form of stock options. People rushed to these new opportunities with the promise of fame and fortune. The situation was similar to how the Gold Rush enticed early American settlers to pack up and head out west.

The new millennium brought the meltdown. Many small companies shut down and people rushed back to MNCs and big players for job security. But there was a twist this time. Big companies started big layoffs. Many tech professionals found out the hard way that job security was no longer an entitlement.

Today the focus is on outsourcing everything from manufacturing, BPOs and software development. Job-hopping is picking up and people are focused on maximizing current salary. Once again it appears as though opportunities are endless.

What’s wrong with this picture?
For one thing, many people are trying to do the same thing - chasing the opportunity of the day and following everyone else. Not many people aspire to be mainframe COBOL programmers today, but 20 years ago that was the ticket to success. Java & Internet technologies are the ticket today. Unfortunately, 5-10 years from now those who continue to follow the herd may end up with a similar fate as COBOL programmers. It can happen to anyone and it’s an easy trap to fall into. This is just a caution that options become more and more limited as technologies fade.

So what’s the alternative?
My advice to techies is to carefully evaluate strategies and trade-offs for long-term career growth. One size does not fit all. Do your homework before following your classmates, peers, and seniors to the next interview.
How do you acquire the diverse skills and experiences necessary to build a successful career? There are many opportunities to choose from. Which opportunity is the best choice for you? Here are a few recommendations to consider:

As we’ve learned from the last 10 years, strategies and keys to success evolve. Consider that your career must span many decades and waves of technology. You will need to learn many new technologies over these decades. Paradigms and the whole industry will evolve and change. As you consider your next move, ask yourself which job is better – one with a 10 percent higher salary or one with an opportunity to learn things that will

open up a new career direction three years from now?
In addition to mastering technology, remember that gainful employment depends on business and customer success. Techies must understand the business their employers are in and how that business delivers value to customers. A job that encourages you to meet customers and understand their problems first hand is far more likely to lead to expanded opportunities.

There are two schools of thought on enhancing your skill sets: 1. Find out what you do best and do it better, and 2. Find out what you do worst and fix it. I personally favor a mix – heavier on 1 and lighter on 2. Focusing exclusively on 1. may cause you to miss lucrative opportunities in new areas. Focusing too much on 2. may limit your success through lower performance. Regardless of which approach you take, you need to understand what you are working on and why. As you assess your skills make sure you are being honest with yourself and authentic with employers. Blind confidence is easy to spot and seldom lands a job where strong skills are valued and required – both of which are critical for a sustained career.

Consider the size of the company you want to work for. Each has advantages depending on your temperament, career phase and skill sets. Over the course of a career it’s probably good to work for both large and small companies. In a small company you may see unique growth opportunities, closer contact with customers, and the opportunity to work on many different things. However, you may not receive much structured training. In a large company you may have more training opportunities and you may be able to specialize in an area of interest, but you may also become invisible as one of the many people doing similar work.

Consider the type of company you want to work for. India has made its mark outsourcing technical work for the rest of the world. Developing solutions based on customer specifications is a valuable service and can be quite lucrative. On the other hand, product companies focus on bringing new innovations to market. The business risk is higher, and so are the rewards. Often lost in the noise of the traffic and outsourcing is a new phenomenon – product innovation by small engineering teams in India. This is a new and exciting dynamic and one that promises to raise India’s standing in the world of IT.

The herd effect would rank title and management opportunity at the top of the list. My radical advice is to focus on substance. A company that evaluates your skills and matches you to a job that will provide real growth and scope for development is far more valuable than a fancy title.

Which is better – staying technical or becoming a manager? Again, there are many trade-offs. Switching tracks too early may have several drawbacks. If you are technically competent and enjoy technical work, you may be better off staying technical as long as possible. Architects and other advanced technical roles are in high demand and command higher salaries than comparable management roles. Once you switch to management your technical edge starts falling off much faster. It’s also much harder to return to a technical role once you become a manager, and there are relatively fewer management positions available as you advance. If your strengths are truly better suited to management roles, and then making the switch sooner may be best.

It’s also wise to stay within norms when considering a shift to management. If you lack the required expertise you may find it hard to gain acceptance and hire senior people. A manager’s job is fundamentally different than the job of the technical people he or she directs. In fact, a manager with technical people will often be more successful than a manager who is the best technical whiz on the team.

Another major consideration is your personal temperament and what you enjoy. Tap into your passion and continue to cultivate it year after year. If you find yourself bored with your work, take responsibility for changing it. A good manager may ignite a spark or be a source of inspiration, but that may not always happen. In fact, it happens the other way around as well. You need to be proactive either way.

Own your personal development and embrace change. Lifelong learning is a necessity in the technology industry. In contrast to agriculture or manufacturing jobs where the system is king, knowledge workers carry their biggest asset with them – their knowledge and experiences. This must be developed and honed over the span of your career.

In summary, we each have unique strengths, skills and experiences. It stands to reason that our paths will be different. Just as businesses need strategies vary, so do effective career strategies. Whether you are a fresher or a seasoned professional, think about your skills and how you can best hone and apply them over the course of a long term career. At each juncture, review and assess where you have been, where you are, and where you are headed. Then decide when and how to change course.
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