Weathering the storms: What you need to succeed in your IT career in good times and bad

Most of us who work down in the trenches of IT know at least one colleague we envy for their ability to cope with the staggering demands of our profession. What is their secret, we ask ourselves. How can they possibly weather the endless challenges and frequent crises that plague those who work in every echelon of IT? How can you move forward in your IT career when the winds are howling?

Secondary success factors

IT career

First, it’s not deep technical knowledge. While having a solid understanding of IT systems, platforms, and processes are clearly essential for IT pros, just because you know a lot doesn’t make for a successful IT career. I’ve known several colleagues who know way more about Windows and Windows Server than I do, yet they’re stuck in a rut in their profession and not at all happy with where their career has landed. And since being happy in what you do is important for success in any kind of career, feeling boxed in by your job is certainly not going to help you achieve the kind of success you are longing for.

And it’s not love of learning either. If there’s any kind of profession these days where constant, ongoing learning is part and parcel of what it’s all about, the IT profession is certainly near the top of the list. But what often starts out as an exciting career that seems to have endless exciting vistas ahead often quickly degenerates into a hatred for endless learning. Yet you’ve certainly got to have a capacity for (and patience for) frequently learning new things if you ever want to progress further in your IT career. But you don’t have to love learning, you just have to do more than merely tolerate it.

It’s also not simply being an organized person. There are lots of organized people working in the IT profession who have great difficulty coping with the demands of the job. A large part of their problem is that while they can organize their time and focus on what they need to do in certain areas, they neglect other more important areas that require their attention and consideration if they are to succeed and not burn out. Stephen Covey’s “Time Management Matrix” can be of much help in this regard. This productivity tool helps you determine which tasks you need to focus on first in order to ensure the long-term success of your business, project, or career. I’ve personally benefited a lot from utilizing Covey’s approach to managing time and getting things done. Some years back when I shifted the main focus of my time as an IT business owner from Quadrant 1 (Important and also Urgent) to Quadrant 2 (Important but not Urgent) my business revenue doubled almost overnight. A more detailed explanation of how to apply Covey’s matrix to your everyday work and life activities can be found in Covey’s book and in this post on the Planet of Success web blog. But while being able to pencil your tasks into the appropriate quadrant and execute them effectively is important for IT professionals, it won’t guarantee long-term career success by itself.

The primary success factor

IT career

If there is one primary factor that can almost guarantee the long-term success of your IT career, then, in my opinion, it’s this: you need ruthless detachment in how you approach your job and perform your daily work. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t care about your job or the tasks you need to perform. What I mean by detachment is being able to overcome your fears of what might go wrong or what others may think, and just ruthlessly focused on getting things done in the way and order they need to be done for the greater good — yours, your boss, the business, users, and customers. It’s the kind of detachment that Chin-Ning Chu talks about in “Thick Face, Black Heart,” her classic book on personal success. It’s the kind of attitude that a surgeon takes when he leans over your body in an operating room armed with a scalpel and ready to cut. It’s not about not caring about your job or the tasks you have to perform; it’s more like skepticism without cynicism.

For example, when a crisis happens with your IT infrastructure and you need to put out the fire, being able to be ruthlessly detached enables you to make the right decisions and take appropriate steps to effectively resolve the situation. I don’t mean that you’ll be able to always find the best solution to every IT problem; in many cases, there is no best solution, just an array of sub-optimal solutions that won’t please everybody. But pleasing everyone is not what troubleshooting a crisis is all about. When fires are put out there’s always loss and grieving of some kind. But putting on a thick face allows you to detach yourself from the outcome of not pleasing everyone.

IT career booster: Ruthless detachment

And when a vendor tries to sell the merits of their new offering to you as the solution for your current IT needs, being able to detach yourself from the vendor’s messaging will help you not become disappointed afterward that buying it hasn’t magically solved all your problems. It can also help prevent you from disappointing your boss, which could certainly have a negative impact on your IT career. By having a black heart in such situations you’ll be able to see things as they really are and be aware of both the advantages and disadvantages of the vendor’s offerings. “Reality isn’t the way you wish things to be or the way they appear to be, but the way they actually are,” says Robert Ringer said in his book “Winning Through Intimidation.” “You either acknowledge reality and use it to your benefit, or it will automatically work against you.” And nothing could be truer when it comes to dealing with vendor promises as an IT professional. You must detach yourself ruthlessly from the false expectations vendors are trying to place upon you to convince you to buy into their products and services.

Ruthless detachment sounds like something bad, especially for Canadians (like me) who have a reputation of being nice all the time. But it’s essential if you want to succeed — or at least survive — in today’s challenging IT workplace and marketplace.

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