In recent MC Press articles and forum discussions, many readers have kicked around subjects such as the apparent decrease in women in IT, off-shoring, the blurring of IT and business careers, and being terminated or outsourced. Many pundits continue to wax poetic on the alleged rise in IT spending—especially among small and medium-sized businesses—as well as the more robust job market. However, the stark reality is that no job—IT or otherwise—is safe nowadays. Therefore, it is paramount for IT professionals to learn other skills so as to demonstrate their value-add in their current positions, gain the qualifications for transitioning to different jobs, or prepare a resume and become adept at the interview process.
Communication, Communication, Communication
Twenty-five years ago, I, like many others, came to IT through a circuitous route. At the dawn of the PC age, it was not only computer scientists who flocked to IT. A lot of liberal arts folks with degrees in English and psychology (I was an anthropology major myself) set out to explore the brave new IT frontier. I posit that the accelerated pace at which computer technology proceeded thereafter was due in part to the motley inter-disciplinary crew whose visions (and voices in their heads) led them to ask not why, but rather why not.
In my early IT career days, the fact that I could write well and speak to large audiences was a boon to my career. In today's world of incessant text messaging, blogging, ringing cell phones, etc., we wrongly believe that we are always communicating. We may always be yapping, but we are not communicating well. What we have done is abnegated the finer points of the communication arts. Being able to write and speak both rhetorically and clearly so that others do not simply read without comprehension and hear without listening and understanding is still paramount in our society and in the job market.
Moreover, these skills will not only help IT professionals find new and better career opportunities, but also help them advance in their positions, help them get promoted, and be the vector by which they can transition to other non-IT positions—if they so desire.
Parlez Vous IT-eze?
Even though the boundaries between positions in IT and the business are blurring, in order for a systems analyst to become a business analyst he/she has to be bilingual. That is, she/he must be able to translate IT-speak into business-speak and vice versa. We have all been in meetings in which IT and line-of-business (LOB) people are discussing the business requirements for some new system that will undoubtedly increase market share and elevate the business' bottom line. Those "requirements" must be translated into IT specifications so that IT can build the juggernaut. This is usually where communications break down, meetings drag on endlessly, and nothing gets accomplished except for the fact that stock prices for Tylenol, Absolut, and Xanax rise through the roof. The proverbial Tower of Babel just can't be toppled because IT does not understand the business and vice versa. This is also why an overwhelmingly large portion of IT/business projects never see the light of day. It's like building a bridge that starts at each river bank and never meets in the middle. This is not only frustrating, but costly in terms of resources—monetary and human—and job casualties often ensue.
I know of companies in which there is a separate LOB comprised of business professionals who understand the IT systems and dictate the specifications for new ones. IT just fills the order. The one position IT should not be in is that of a subordinate, non-differentiated, and resource-guzzling cost center.
IT professionals who develop excellent relationships with LOB executives and staff, who can understand LOB requests, who can reply to others' questions concisely and clearly, and who are able to take LOB requirements and present them to IT, as well as act as a liaison between the LOB and IT, will have more doors open to them than the geeks who think the LOB people just don't get it. It is likely that the LOB people don't get the IT stuff; however, they usually do understand the business. Being the first to hold out the olive branch and begin a dialogue may be met with sincere appreciation.
Spoken communications can be one-on-one or one-on-many. The ability to speak publicly (and actually say something meaningful), whether in the conference room or in a public auditorium, is not bestowed on people by a higher authority. Most people have to work at it. I recall a company for which I worked that actually had communications professionals conduct classes on public speaking for the IT staff. Next to the class in CL programming, the public-speaking workshop (a two-day event) was time well-spent.
Of course, with scant IT budgets, it is likely impossible to procure continuing education for IT professionals in new technologies let alone communications. My advice: If you aspire to public speaking, start small. You can train yourself to get over the sweaty palms and trembling voice. If you are responsible for a project, one that you know a whole lot about and that your manager usually gives the weekly status report on, ask that you be allowed to present. Or gather your ideas about system improvement, etc., organize them coherently, and then pitch them to your manager. The more you speak publicly, the better you will get. And learn to use PowerPoint effectively, which means sparse slides with crisp bullets. Stretch yourself a little by asking for a little more responsibility, especially in an area that could improve your career agility. This is worth the extra investment in your time and effort. You'll thank yourself.
From emails to feasibility studies and needs assessments, to project summaries and proposals, to reports and even resumes, everyone in almost every capacity is required to write at some point. You can run, but you can't hide.
How many emails do you receive daily in which words are misspelled and grammar is so bad the entire message is incomprehensible? Good grief! We use computers now with personal productivity tools that provide us with spell check. All the email programs—such as Outlook and even AOL—provide the option to spell check automatically before you send the email and make a fool out of yourself. I receive emails every day, sometimes from executives and academics, with blatant misspellings and grammatical errors. You would think they would know better. But you know and you can do better. An email to your manager or other people in your company is your written word. It reflects not only what, but how, you think. Just taking the few extra nanoseconds to review it and spell check it—as well as ensure the email is addressed to the correct party—can improve how you are perceived professionally.
To write well, you have to read. And I don't mean Visual Basic 10: The Return of the Programmers or SQL: The Handbook for the Sensitive Developer or RPG Forever. You get my point. Consider what executives in your company read—I mean professionally. You might want to consider reading The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal Online. And before you grimace in distaste, be aware that the C-level executives in your company didn't become executives by reading C++ for CFOs. Besides, both are online and both cover science and technology. You likely are already aware of Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com. I use these two Web sites exhaustively because I can't spell and I like to find new and exciting words to keep my readers on the edge of their seats and/or move them to tears. Right.
It is also worth investing in those slim and timeless style and grammar guides such as The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B.White as well as The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer. These are quick and easy to use as writing challenges arise ad hoc. Another general guide is the Chicago Manual of Style. And one recommendation that may be a surprise to you is Stephen King's On Writing, which is part memoir, part King's personal guide to the craft of writing. It's my favorite—an excellent read—more personal style versus professional, but it might get you loosened up and ready to exercise your writing skills.
To write well you also have to write. Writing is akin to a muscle, and like any muscle, it needs to be exercised to remain toned. Again, as in my aforementioned advice on speaking, seek writing opportunities at work. Offer to take the first shot at a project proposal or status report. It relieves the burden from your immediate superior and demonstrates that you are proactive and willing to take on new responsibilities that can, incidentally, advance your career or help transition you into another. Also, avoid analysis paralysis by saying it on paper the way you would say it aloud; you can always go back and hone and tone.
Summer is almost upon us, and that means vacation and hopefully some less-crazed workdays, which may mean some extra time to start thinking about acquiring some new skills and developing a requirements list for self-improvement. You might even try negotiating with your manager or supervisor to use a personal day to take a reputable communication workshop, for which the company pays the fee and you forfeit the personal day. Sometimes you have to give in order to get.
OK, I have to get this article spell checked and grammar checked and in by the deadline.