The field of information technology is lively and diverse, encompassing a broad range of professions, from traditional programmers, managers, and analysts, to practitioners of library science, usability, and graphic design. Numerous technologies compete, thrive, and coexist. Organizations rely on IT resources not only for back-end systems, but for intranets, Web sites, email, and other electronic communications. What's more, the Web's rise has lent a certain caché to computing careers. Despite IT's possibilities, some longtime workers are bored, feel unchallenged, or believe that their jobs are pointless. I've heard sentiments such as these:
- "We've been using the same creaky technology for 10 years."
- "I just do what I'm told."
- "My career isn't going anywhere."
- "I'm falling behind. No one will hire me."
- "IT isn't for me anymore. Maybe I need to change careers."
In this article, I'll provide ideas to help information technology workers pull themselves out of a slump, onto an IT career path of energy and creativity.
Meet Peers for Fresh Perspectives
If your only professional contact is within your workplace, your knowledge and self-image might be limited by routine and the company's culture. Getting out and meeting professionals from outside your company can be refreshing.
Consider meeting new people at professional organizations and user groups. An excellent resource for finding groups, besides a general Web search, is meetup.com, which allows specialized searches filtered by location. Searching meetup.com for terms such as ".NET" and "project management" returned many meetings near my home. Another resource is the weekly email newsletter bernardoslist.com, popular in major cities.
To make the most of meetings with peers, consider these tips:
- When choosing events to attend, include fields outside of your own specialty. For example, if you are a programmer, a lecture on usability or graphic design would help you see the larger impact of your work. You would also learn how to communicate with your colleagues who work in those disciplines.
- Bring business cards and don't be shy about exchanging them with people you meet.
- Expect to be a little nervous meeting new people. This is normal. Take the opportunity to polish your social skills and learn to explain what you do.
- If you meet someone with whom you'd like to keep in touch, consider inviting him or her to link with you via a Web-based social networking site such as linkedin.com. In my experience, people are happy to expand their network in this way.
- Show curiosity about others' careers. You will hear perspectives that may change the way you think about your job.
- Become known as an authority in your field.
- Get paid for your writing (depending on the publication).
- Experts will be happy to be interviewed for your articles. You'll learn from these people and gain confidence by associating with them.
- Feel satisfaction from helping others (you'll receive many appreciative emails from readers).
- When faced with the challenge of writing, you'll learn how to work effectively. For example, although I didn't consider myself a "morning person," I learned that mornings are my best time to work.
- Many writers face self-doubt, so writing is an opportunity to encounter such exaggerated, doom-laden feelings and overcome them.
Where should you publish your work? Depending on your level of experience and the subject matter, you have many options, from the Web to print magazines. Examples:
- Your own blog or a guest posting on others' blogs
- Online technical forums
- Web site of a professional organization you belong to
- Magazines (online or print) read by your peers
- Publications you've never heard of, but are listed in the book Writer's Market
Although you may believe you need a lucky "break" to start publishing your work, the reality is that editors, with never-ending production schedules to meet, need your content. If you offer fresh, useful ideas, opportunities abound for publishing them. Contact editors to discuss topics, word counts, deadlines, and payment. You can prepare by reading the "Guidelines for Authors" (or similar) section on a publication's Web site, but be aware that these are sometimes out of date.
When writing for publication, consider these tips:
- Choose a topic that interests you. You will be spending a lot of time with it.
- When writing for the Web, use easy-to-read bulleted lists when appropriate. Break other material into short paragraphs.
- Be prepared to cut any material that is weak or confusing or that does not serve your article's main purpose. Save this deleted material in a computer file for future use (and so you won't feel too bad about cutting it).
- Prepare a short blurb about yourself. This paragraph will usually appear at the end of your articles. Include an email address so readers can contact you.
Here are two recommended books:
- Spring into Technical Writing (Addison-Wesley, 2005) by Barry J. Rosenberg
- The Elements of Style (Longman, 1999) by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (classic, yet still effective!)
Value Your Time Highly
Sometimes we fail to acknowledge how much time is consumed by small, mindless tasks or delays, such as the mouse-clicks needed to print a document or the time our computer takes to boot up. If we could notice and eliminate these time-wasters, we would save a substantial amount of time, creating room in our day for more interesting and useful pursuits. Here are examples of ways to streamline tedious tasks:
- Install extra memory in your computer if it is sluggish.
- Learn shortcuts of Microsoft Word and other common programs. A simple example is CTRL+P, which prints the current document. Advanced or frequent users may want to program macros to handle repetitive functions, or at least assign keyboard shortcuts to deeply buried menu functions. For example, you can assign a shortcut to paste unformatted text (stripping out any formatting), an option normally only accessible through Edit/Paste Special (tutorial at http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/help/HA010429611033.aspx).
- Install software that retains multiple clipboard entries. Using such a utility, you can copy multiple bits of text to the clipboard at once and then retrieve them when needed. This approach avoids the need to flip back and forth between applications each time text is copied. Many free programs can be found online. I use Smart Type Assistant, which is not free but has additional features, such as the ability to paste frequently used text strings.
Don't Be a Code Potato
Our physical health influences our sense of well-being to a surprising extent. Sedentary work, such as developing software, can lead to pot bellies and groggy minds. If we are to improve our careers, we need stamina and calm, alert minds. Try these suggestions:
- Get adequate sleep. Sleep allows your brain to process what it has learned. Furthermore, sleep deprivation causes the body to release stress hormones that ravage body and mind.
- If you drink more than a couple of cups of coffee per day, consider substituting water or tea. If you need constant coffee to keep awake, sleep would be a better choice.
- Exercise at least a little every day. For example, walk to the coffee shop instead of driving there. Any amount of exercise will help to pump oxygen through your body, improve your balance, and work off excess nervous energy.
- When taking a break at work, instead of using the break to check email, get up from your desk and walk around the office. You'll be refreshed when you return to work.
Improve Your Working Conditions to Boost Productivity
Does your office environment help you do your job, or does it add stress? If you crane your neck to see the screen, scrunch a telephone receiver between your shoulder and head, or squint to shield your eyes from glare, your work environment could use improvement.
For example, my effectiveness soared when I began using a telephone headset. Not only could I enjoy the sensation of a relaxed shoulder, but I could sit upright, type faster and more accurately, and project more confidence and ease when speaking to clients. The headset speeds my ability to troubleshoot clients' issues. (Some people use a hands-free speakerphone. For me, a headset allows warmer, information-rich conversations, better communication with less effort, and shorter phone calls.)
If we ignore our bodies' danger signals (pain, tension), our innate self-protective mechanisms can shut us down. Research at Temple University shows that the body reacts to overuse by producing proteins that cause lethargy and even depression. If you don't feel energetic at work, your equipment and furniture may be playing a role.
For tips on improving your work environment, see my previous articles on avoiding repetitive strain injury:
- "Arrange Your Workstation to Protect Yourself Against Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)"
- "Protect Your Eyes Against Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS)"
Track Technological Trends
Technology changes rapidly, keeping IT challenging and fresh but rendering yesterday's knowledge obsolete. As a result, those unfamiliar with new technological trends can lose confidence in their own value as IT workers.
While some employees receive training on the job, others must find their own ways to stay current. Educational choices abound. In addition to traditional sources of information, such as books and classroom instruction, many online resources are available—courses, Web sites, email discussion lists, blogs, and forums.
Most of us need to be spurred by a practical project to really learn any technology. Here are suggested situations where you can gain experience:
- Immerse yourself in hobby projects, such as my first PHP project, which helped me manage my library card account online.
- Take on volunteer opportunities with organizations to which you belong. For example, New York PHP needs volunteers to help redesign its Web site.
- Once you've attained some mastery, you could contribute to open-source projects.
- If you have learned a skill on your own, without your employer having to train you, it might be acceptable for you to use the skills in a pilot project at work. Then both you and your employer can benefit from your discoveries.
Grow and Thrive
Wherever you are in your career path, you can start to establish a distinctive, forward-looking professional identity and self-image. The process of your professional development in IT (not a destination, but an evolving story) offers you many ways to grow and thrive.
Alan Seiden enjoys leading collaborative software projects and troubleshooting clients' perplexing problems. He has also written many articles for usability and IT publications. Alan is vice president of the New York City Usability Professionals Association and a member of New York PHP.