Future CIOs and CTOs: The Secret To Creating And Executing A Winning Information Technology Career Plan
by Paul Rudo on 27/05/11 at 10:41 pm
Mark Herschberg is a CTO who has hired over 100 people, interviewed over 1000, and taught career management to engineering students at MIT and mid-career people at SUNY. He also ran the Job Discussion section of www.JavaRanch.com (a 200,000 person website for software engineers).
Mark knows what it takes to reach the highest levels within an IT career. And today, I’ve been lucky enough to have him share some of his insightful career wisdom, and to share it with my readers.
First, a bit more background on Mark.
Mark Herschberg is a smart guy who was educated at MIT (with degrees in physics, EE/CS, and a masters in cryptography)
Mark has spent his career launching and fixing new ventures at startups, Fortune 100s, and academia. Mark has worked at and consulted to number startups typically taking on roles in general management, operations, and technology.
He has been involved from inception and fundraising through growth and sale of the company. Mark was instrumental in launching ServiceLive.com Sears online home services labor market; he also helped fix NBCs online video marketplace (now Hulu.com).
In academia Mark spent a year at HBS working with two finance professors to create the upTick system now used to teach finance at many of the top business schools.
I’ve heard you use a “Ship in the Ocean” metaphor when it comes to career planning. Can you elaborate on this?
Imagine a ship in the middle of the ocean. Left to itself the ship will drift with the currents. you may wind up in Boston or you may wind up in Rio. If you leave yourself to the current you don’t control it. Most people will choose to steer their ship. Sometimes they’ll sail with the currents and sometimes against it. A storm may ultimately blow you of course. But if you don’t steer your ship, the odds of having the currents take you were you want to go are pretty slim. Your career is at the whim of many currents; you best learn to steer your ship if you want to wind up somewhere.
Most career planners suggest thinking about the next 3 to 5 years. But I’ve noticed that you actually suggest planning your entire 50 year career in advance. Why such an extreme position?
This goes to the ship analogy. When sailing you may turn the wheel based on the conditions of the moment but you also think miles ahead and ultimately plan hundreds of miles ahead. Whether steering a ship planning your career you have more clarity in the near term than long term, but you still need to think ahead.
For the past 10 years I’ve been telling software developers, “Watch out. Writing good code will get you a job today and it will get you a job tomorrow. But someday–maybe 5 years from now maybe 20 years from now–when communication tools shrink distances even further, and when students in developing nations have access to the same tools you do, they’ll write the same good code for less. If you want to have a successful software career 20 years from now you need to offer things someone 5,000 miles away can’t. Learn the business and understand it in a way remote contracts can’t; that’s your competitive advantage.”
I’ve noticed that many C-level executives come from a Finance or Marketing background. But technical fields seem to be a dead-end for many people. Why do you think this is? What are some of the career challenges that are unique to IT?
This is what we focus on in my MIT teaching at UPOP ( http://upop.mit.edu/about/ ). In engineering there are well defined problems with right and wrong answers. Being good at solving those problems makes you a great engineer. Executives solve a different set a problems, usually ill defined and without clear right and wrong answers. Engineers typically haven’t been taught or encouraged to think that way. The path from developer or sys admin to the corner office begins by getting better at those engineering skills and then suddenly shifts to being better at fuzzy skills. If you don’t realize that, your career runs smack into a brick wall.
What should go into a career plan? What sort of questions should be asked?
- Professional & personal interests
- Needs & desires (financial, familial, geographic, and other responsibilities and constraints)
- Personality type
- Cultural preferences
If one of my readers wanted to put together a career plan for their IT careers, who else should they seek input from?
Ask everyone for help–your manager, HR, friends, mentors, family, co-workers. Everyone should create a personal “board of advisors” who can help guide them. But remember: “No one is more committed to your career than you.” Your manager/company has goals that are best for them; your significant other may want you to take more risk or less risk, or spend more at home, or not move, etc. The recruiter wants to place you in that new job to get his commission. They may mean well but many also stand to gain or lose from your choices. That doesn’t mean they are insincere but recognize their bias.
How often should the career plan be revised?
It should be revised whenever new opportunities appear. This might mean revising every 12 months, at company reviews, or when changing jobs.
What are some key career skills that IT professionals generally need to work on?
They often don’t focus enough on the soft skills (or the term we use at MIT, “firm skills”). This includes leadership, communication skills, networking, conflict resolution, negotiations, etc.
What are some special areas of concern that IT professionals should focus on when putting together their career plan?
Beyond that recognizing what each rung of the ladder is and what skills are needed for each rung. (This goes to the earlier comments about different skills and later in the career.)
What advice can you give when it comes to networking for an IT career?
I have a talk on this too–but that’s a whole other topic. Basically always be networking.
Remember that networking is about building relationships, not simply getting someone’s contact info or adding them on LinkedIn.
What are some key concepts to keep in mind when executing the career plan?
Be flexible. It’s never going to work out exactly as planned, but odds are if you plan well you’ll wind up where you want to be.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Never stop learning. The world is constantly changing, if you’re not, you’re going to get left behind.