How-To IT Career Guide: 7 Critical Strategies, From Getting Started To Semi-Retiring

Technology Staff Editor
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What career goals do you want to reach? How can you help the people on your team reach their goals? If there's one lesson of the tumultuous past seven years, it's that a great business technology career takes consistent planning, education, and fine-tuning. The ground can shift quickly. Whether it's getting started or semiretiring, every business tech pro needs a plan. These areas are a good place to start.

Moving To A Higher-Paying Specialty
There's a huge gap between high-paying specialties and the lower-paying ranks. Here are tips for crossing over.
There's a nice payday for people getting into the higher-end IT job categories such as ERP specialist, IT architect, and various management roles. Those categories often clear more than $100,000, according to InformationWeek's National IT Salary Survey, compared with categories such as help desk and general IT, where median salaries are below $70,000. How does one move onto that higher-paying track? The "formula" includes a mix of formal education; constant, hands-on, real-world learning; and a relentless drive to do progressively more challenging work. Do certifications matter? Over the last 12 months, only 6% of staff and 4% of managers received a bonus that was tied to a certification or training, our survey finds. Just 3% of staffers and managers received a "hot skill" premium. Yet certification and education are part of moving into higher-salary jobs. "I'm big on certifications, but you have to dig" when evaluating what a certification really means, says Paul Poteete, the chief information security officer of a financial services firm. Is it paper only--a class taken to beef up a resumé? Or does it impart knowledge and skills needed on the job? "Even if they have a certification, you look for motivation and a desire to do the job," says Poteete, who as a security chief sits in one of those well-paid, highly skilled job categories.
say their companies have outsourced work offshore
have gotten expanded or new responsibilities because of outsourcing
lost a job or took a pay cut due to outsourcing

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What IT Pros Earn:
Charts From Our Salary Survey
Same goes with MBAs. Someone who works in business technology roles for years, rotating responsibilities and duties--managing people, projects, and budgets--could gain the equivalent of an MBA through experience. That's been the case for Ravi Chitturi, an IT operations manager at Wolseley, a global supplier of heating and plumbing products. Chitturi, a 16-year IT veteran with seven years at his current employer, oversees a group that includes technology and business analysts. "My aim is clear: I want to be a CIO," he says, hopefully within five years. Even though Chitturi's experience has prepared him for that role, and he has an engineering degree and has had leadership training, he believes he needs an MBA, perhaps through an executive program, to put him squarely on the CIO track. Management jobs have been the fastest-growing tech category since 2001, but business technology pros don't have to get on the management track to make good money. Staff specialists in data mining, infrastructure, and integration can outearn managers working in lower-paying disciplines. John Willard, a senior IT architect, helped create his own career track at the Virginia Department of Transportation. Willard made the case to his superiors that, as tech environments move to service-oriented architectures, "you need someone to be able to see where and how everything fits together," he says. So they created an IT architect position--which, at a median pay of $108,000, is the highest-paying IT staff category in our survey. Now Willard's managers are discussing creating a formal architecture team and set of processes. Architects have to "see the big picture," to look beyond the pieces of software and hardware they manage and consider the broad IT structure a company needs to run its business. It's a description of what architects do--and a good road map for people trying to chart their careers to higher-paying areas. If you're in a position to bring business needs and IT capabilities together, you're on the right track.

Getting Started In Tech
Entry level wages decline in our annual Salary Survey.
Starting out in IT, many young people jazzed about technology want to spend as much time as they can working with it. A better first job, however, provides more exposure to customers and employees who use technology. "Never turn down a job where you're working with end users," advises Chris Bobbitt, CIO of Health Communications, a provider of training services to the hospitality industry. Entry-level pros must build their technology base and prove they have the chops to learn new technologies. But technology isn't what slows most of them from advancing. "I go out recruiting for our company, and many younger people don't have a clue about how real work works," says Benjamin Story, a network administrator for Dot Foods. Story recommends that students try to get real IT experience as early as their freshman year. The data on entry-level jobs is among the most worrisome in our salary survey. The only age category in which salaries declined compared with a year ago was for those 25 and under, where median base salaries fell to $40,000 from $45,000 for staffers and to $44,000 from $49,000 for managers. Once in a job, young tech pros should focus on deeply understanding what drives the company's success and how IT fits into that. Look at the jobs at a company you'd like to be in within five years, then plot what's needed to get you there, recommends David Cutter, director of application delivery at Acuity Brands Lighting. But write that five-year plan in pencil, because this is a career built on change, and you need an open mind. "There's seems to be fewer entry-level positions than the ones I was able to grab as a younger person," says Bobbitt, a 24-year veteran who started as a programmer. A recent survey of hiring managers by job site CareerBuilder .com found 82% of 200 IT employers surveyed plan to hire recent college grads this year. Even with a degree and solid internships, grads should expect potential employers to be skeptical that they can add value. "I absolutely cannot afford to have entry-level people," says Ravi Chitturi, an IT operations manager at Wolseley, a supplier of heating and plumbing products, who wants experienced pros who'll contribute quickly. Many veterans echo the advice of Dan Cobb, VP of the IT placement business of staffing firm Hudson: "Work your way into something you love, but the broader your skills, the more marketable you'll be."

Making Back-To-School Pay Off
One in five paid their own way to training the past 12 months, our salary survey finds.
Scott Baldwin was a Web designer at and considered using the company's training program to move into software engineering. But he decided he needed more. So in 2004 Baldwin decided to go back to school, moving his wife and infant daughter to Salt Lake City, where he attended Neumont University, a for-profit tech school where he did a two-year, project-based program that gave him a B.S. in computer science. The good news: He's now working at IBM as a WebSphere consultant, earning 30% more than he did at Amazon. The bad news: He has a $60,000 student loan. As a software engineer, Baldwin has put himself in the third-highest-paid job category among business technology staff, according to the InformationWeek Research National IT Salary Survey, with a median total compensation of $98,000. Web developers make a median of $63,000. (See our How To on moving into a higher-paying job track.) So what kind of training do IT pros think helps their careers the most?

Image Gallery: What IT Pros Earn: Charts From Our Salary Survey
By far, training in specific technologies is cited most often, by 67% of staff and 46% of managers. Next is certification training, cited by 37% of staff and 22% of managers, followed by project management training (26% and 31%) and business skills training (16% and 32%). Only 13% of staffers and 12% of managers see college courses in technology or business as most valuable in developing their careers. Business tech execs complain often about the lack of communication skills, but just 9% of staff and 11% of managers cited those skills as most important to their careers. If they want training, most tech pros will have to pay for it themselves. About 45% of staff and managers have education and training benefits from their companies, and 30% get tuition reimbursement. Only 20% have certification reimbursement. About 20% of staffers and managers surveyed have paid from their own pockets for training, certification, or both in the past 12 months.
Systems Architect
Software Engineer
Project Leader
Sales Support Engineer
Database Administrator

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What IT Pros Earn:
Charts From Our Salary Survey
Graduate degrees can pay off, as long as you're building real-world experience. "An MBA or M.S. in computer science is nice but not mandatory," says Kirsten Smith, a partner at executive search firm Battalia Winston. "What is more important right now is the ability to think in terms of business and to have the ability to solve business problems." Employers are less concerned with an advanced degree than they are with the thinking that may result from one, she says. Only 12% of IT managers and 4% of staff in our survey have MBAs. More broadly, 18% of managers and 17% of staff have some kind of master's degree. Companies place different values on education. At Edward Hines Lumber, a privately held company that posted $250 million in revenue last year, many entry-level IT people come into their jobs without college degrees. Many start in an operations role, working with customers, or loading lumber. However, Edward Hines encourages its people to advance their educations as they move up, says IT director John Payton. All three of the managers in his organization have master's degrees in computer science or business. The company will work with individuals on a case-by-case basis to help with tuition, though there is no formal policy. "Education is important," Payton says, "but learning the business and knowing the company is, too."

Move Up, But Stay On The Tech Track
Managers definitely pull down more, but there's good money in the right staff skills.
Not interested in going into the management ranks in order to move up the career ladder? That will make it harder to earn the big bucks, but there's still good money to be made on the techie track. It's true managers make considerably more on average--no staff skill category hits a six-figure median compensation package, while 11 manager roles do, the InformationWeek Salary Survey finds. But there are five staff job functions with median compensation above $90,000: enterprise application integration ($95,000); data mining/data warehousing and Web infrastructure (both $93,000), ERP ($92,000), and wireless infrastructure ($90,000). Those median pay packages are similar to the median pay of managers who describe their job functions as data center ($97,000), telecom, and groupware/e-mail ($90,000).
Staffers who want tech training
Managers who want tech training
The high-end tech track isn't easy, though. "The technical landscape is littered by hot technology that grew cold," says Steve Creason, a former Accenture consultant, who's now an assistant professor of MIS at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. People on the tech track would be wise to build ties with business colleagues beyond IT. Asked which skills they have, 80% of managers say, "collaborate with internal stakeholders," while just 64% of staff do. Whether your goals are as staff or manager, that's a skill to master.

Deal With Age Discrimination
Salary and age: a difficult mix.
Is IT a young person's game? The cliché that young IT pros have an edge because they've been trained on the latest and greatest technology doesn't bear out in the data from the InformationWeek National IT Salary Survey. But a follow-up survey we did shows a notable number of older workers think they--and their higher salaries--have been targeted in layoffs. Staffers older than 55 garner the highest median salary, at $78,000, slightly more than the $76,000 earned by 46- to 55-year-olds, according to our survey. For staffers 26 to 35, the median salary is $61,000; for those 25 and under, it's $40,000. Our survey reveals a similar trend for business technology managers.
In our follow-up survey to explore age discrimination, which drew 651 business technology pros over 50, about one-fourth say they've been denied jobs or promotions because they were "deemed too old." We asked them to exclude times that their salaries priced them out of jobs. Breaking the over-50 data into managers and staffers, 54% of managers think they're valued and put in positions to share their experience, 41% say they're valued but underutilized, and 5% don't think they're valued. For staff, it's 40%, 47%, and 13%, respectively. Take Rob, a 30-year IT veteran who has an MBA, is a CPA, and has certifications as a Java programmer and Java architect. Since being laid off four years ago at age 50, he's been working steadily as a contractor. Based on his billing rate, he figures he makes about $120,000 annually. The permanent jobs he's seen available pay about half of that. In our survey, 11% of staffers and 12% of managers say they think they've been laid off because of their age. Of those respondents, about three-quarters say the company did so at least in part to replace them with younger or cheaper talent. A third of staff and 20% of managers say outsourcing or offshoring played a part. Most landed new work, doing the same job at another company (50% of staffers and 69% of managers) or finding different jobs after being retrained (47% of staffers and 20% of managers).

Semi-retire As A Consultant

There's a demand, but be ready to sell your skills.
A lot of IT veterans -- from CIOs to technical specialists--have in the back of their minds a plan to semiretire and "do some consulting on the side." There's a market for such skills and knowledge. But those who go in had better be prepared to be their own salesperson. "You have to put enormous energy into marketing yourself--far more than one does as part of an internal IT organization," says James Hatch, who's been doing part-time consulting since retiring as CIO of the packaging company Pactiv. Hatch describes it as a "constant, ongoing networking task." The other option is to hand that sales job over to a staffing company. That's what Mike Biela, a 60-year-old, 25-year IT veteran is doing. His previous full-time job was as director of applications development for a steel company. About two years ago, that steel manufacturer outsourced IT operations to another company: Hudson. Biela stayed on for about a year during the transition, then left, spending six months mostly baby-sitting grandchildren. Then Hudson called, asking if he would like to work on a project that included a sales order management system for another steel company. "That was the best move I ever made," he says. He travels from his Pittsburgh home to Cleveland weekly, putting in 40 hours over four or five days each week. He makes 10% more than on his last job. Gigs requiring less than 40 hours a week are out there, says Dan Cobb, a VP at IT outsourcing and staffing company Yoh. "If you don't want to work full time, be clear about when you can work," he says. And there are opportunities for specialists to semiretire from the tech track, Cobb says. In fact, the more concrete people can be about what they're selling, the better. While former senior-level experience is valuable, there's a big demand for project managers who can train and lead other professionals on a team, says Tim Bosse, a Hudson VP. Hatch has similar advice, suggesting the marketing effort is easier the more you "productize" your approach, rather than focusing on broad, general management capabilities. One big risk: getting stale. In semiretirement, the same advice you've probably given up-and-comers applies to you: Keep up with the latest tech trends, read, take classes, do whatever's needed to keep your skills and knowledge current. Then, be ready to sell what you know.

Keep Your Rising Stars From Leaving
The 'lucky to have a job' feeling is fading.
Consider yourself lucky to have a job! It was an all-too-common management technique of the dot-com bust era, as shortsighted employers controlled their people through fear and implicit threats. But times are changing. Our survey suggests that managers better pay more attention to nurturing their talented people, or they risk losing them.
What is your company doing to retain IT employees?
Expanding opportunities for career development
Increasing pay
Paying bonuses
Providing mentoring to groom junior staff
Planning for succession
Data: InformationWeek Research National IT Salary Survey of 7,281 IT professionals, spring 2007

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What IT Pros Earn:
Charts From Our Salary Survey
Asked to check what matters most to them about their jobs, 34% of IT staffers cite "the ability to work on creating new innovative IT." That compares with only 9% last year. More than double the percentage of respondents--28% vs. 12% last year--say the "ability to work with leading-edge technology" matters to them. That puts the pressure on IT managers to know who's worth spending valuable time on, helping them develop their talents and providing them with new opportunities. A self-motivated individual will volunteer for projects and jobs and ask a lot of questions. That requires some patience by managers. "You don't want to kill motivation," says Paul Poteete, chief information security officer at a financial services company. "People don't quit jobs; they quit managers." The hard lesson is to spend more time with the high performers, as opposed to those struggling, says David Cutter, director of application delivery at Acuity Brands Lighting. At one point in his career, Cutter spent 80% of his time on stragglers, "when I should've been spending more time with those who were true diamonds in the rough," he says. "Those people I can help develop." The leadership task is more about encouraging people who are self-motivated and eager to learn than providing that motivation, says Chris Bobbit, CIO at training company Health Communications. "I provide some of the motivation, but not a lot of hand-holding," Bobbit says. For Ravi Chitturi, an IT operations manager at Wolseley, a supplier of heating and plumbing products, it's all about results. "We're not in the faith-based business," he says. "A person's past history is a good indicator if that person will be able to apply new skills in the future." The IT job market has strengthened some--unemployment was 2.3% in the first quarter, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the lowest first quarter since 2001, and less than half of what it was in 2004 and 2003. Meanwhile, the IT workforce is largely stagnant, having grown less than 2% from the low points of 2004 and 2003. So the pressure to get and keep good people is growing, and people with particular skills and experience, from architecture and integration to security and data mining, can command decent bucks. Money is among the most important considerations for IT staffers, so let your stars know what financial rewards they're working toward. Increasingly important to them is the work they're doing. Says Cutter: "The best and the brightest will probably leave and go somewhere else if you don't let them try new things."


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