8 ways to jumpstart your career

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With family, work and personal obligations, few IT professionals feel they have extra time to sharpen their career prospects. But in reality, small changes can make a big difference. We’ve collected advice from experts on the tweaks IT professionals can make to improve their career prospects.

  1. “Act” the job you want now, while still in your current role

If you want to take on more responsibilities, start walking the talk, says Jennifer Doran, consultant program manager at TEKsystems in Hanover, Md. By volunteering for stretch assignments, for instance, you can show people how you operate outside of your normal day-to-day tasks. When an opportunity comes up, IT professionals should be willing to put in time outside of work hours or during lunch without compensation. The payback, she says, is increased exposure to the decision-makers in the organization.

  1. Be the obvious choice

You should, of course, do your own job well; but you should also make the effort to learn your manager's job by offering assistance in fulfilling some of their tasks, says Ashley Leonard, president and CEO of Verismic Software. “This not only helps your manager, but it also makes you the natural choice for promotion when they move up.”

  1. Introduce yourself

Start a relationship with the people you work on projects with by introducing yourself, whether in-person or on the phone, Doran suggests. “Email is easy, but it’s devoid of emotional connections,” she says. You can tell them you saw them on the meeting invite, welcome them to the team, and let them know you look forward to working together more closely. “It takes seconds to do, and it fills the bank with emotional intelligence and says that you’re ready to build a professional relationship with these folks,” she says.

  1. Be curious

After meetings with customers, partners and managers, or even during one-to-one conversations, ask questions to learn more about their business function, what their group does and what project they’re assigned to. “If you say, ‘I’m not familiar with that project, tell me more about it,’ it shows interest, enthusiasm and the desire to seek out knowledge,” Doran says.

It’s a good practice to balance out the exchange by “giving” as much as you “take,” Doran adds. “If you’re taking information from somebody, be sure to ask whether there’s anything else they need from you so people think, ‘When Jen calls, she’s not just asking for information; she’s offering to help.’”

By asking questions, IT professionals can increase their visibility, learn what others are trying to accomplish, and understand how their work fits into the bigger picture, says Faisel Khwaja, manager of the IT hiring practice at Addison Group in the Schaumburg, Ill., office. “It ensures you won’t be seen in a siloed role,” he says, “because you’re speaking with people who are privvy to information at a peer level from other teams.” Once you understand that bigger picture, you’re more educated to speak to things you wouldn’t be expected to understand or be excited about.

Start by asking questions like, “How does what we’re doing in IT affect your team or department, or how does IT impact revenue,” he says. “When you have an intellectual curiosity about what you’re trying to accomplish as a whole, you’ll get on more radars.”

  1. Be a bridge

On a similar note, you can use meetings and conversations to show yourself as someone who can help bridge gaps that exist on cross-functional teams that include IT and other business units, such as finance or marketing, Khwaja says. “These are great opportunities to give yourself some exposure,” he says. A lot of times, there’s some level of conflict between technology and business people, and it helps to have someone who can diplomatically explain, ‘This is what we can and can’t do,’ in a way that makes sense to business people.”

It’s not just what you say but how you say it, Khwaja says. An example is conveying the challenges of executing something vs. simply saying “No, we can’t do that.” “The more diplomatic you can be, the more likely you’ll attract the attention of business users and management for career progression.”

  1. Play with technology

When it comes to technology, don’t limit yourself to what you’re exposed to inside the office, Khwaja says; instead, use your private time to sharpen your skills. “If you’re not learning about newer technologies outside the hours of 9-5, your career won’t advance because you’re not showing the initiative to stay on top of your craft,” he says. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking a class. “Some people have servers at home that they update to be sure they’re on top of that,” he says. Similarly, you can learn about mobile development by downloading tools and playing with them.

Don’t feel you need to become an expert in every area of technology within the company, Khwaja says. “Concentrate on becoming an expert in several areas so you can offer yourself as a subject matter expert for those two or three technologies you’ve become really good at.” This will increase your visibility within the organization as people learn you’re the go-to person for those areas and can lend yourself as an expert for those areas.

  1. Find a mentor

Look for someone who’s got a job you aspire to, and ask them for feedback on where you can improve and the experience you need to get where you want to go. The person should be willing to guide you through your career, but avoid the temptation to look for too soft of a shoulder to lean on, Doran says. “You need someone willing to pull you back when you’re ready to fall off the cliff but also who will challenge you and push you to your limits,” she says.

Mentors should be able to introduce you to the right people, advise you on additional steps to take to prepare for your next job and otherwise set you up for success. “Most people who stand up as mentors are happy to take the time, as long as you make your intentions known,” Doran says. “It’s the pay-it-forward idea that they’re helping someone like them achieve their professional goals.”

  1. Roll up your sleeves with passion

Managers don’t appreciate when employees behave as though they're entitled to move up based on a minimal amount of effort, Leonard says. “Hard work, dedication and effort are always the best way to stand out from the rest of your peers,” he says. “Management will notice those who are the first person to arrive each morning — ready to dive into the day or stay later or volunteer for extra projects or ongoing responsibility.”

Brandel is a freelance writer. She can be reached at marybrandel@verizon.net.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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