If you're just starting your IT career, you can learn a lot from the people who've traveled the path before you. With time and experience comes clarity and perspective, which yield key insight into what it takes to be successful.
We asked several IT professionals what they wish they had known earlier in their IT careers. Here are three lessons from their experiences.
Develop your communication skills early.
Prospective IT experts pursue IT degrees to gain technical knowledge—but it's your nontechnical skills that will give you an advantage.
Further reading: What to know before pursuing a career in IT.
Whether it’s writing up documentation, drafting emails, or creating a presentation to inform and educate leadership or regular staff, IT professionals who are good at conveying complex technical information in an approachable, easy-to-understand way put themselves in prime position for career growth.
"The most important thing for a person seeking a degree in IT is to learn how to communicate well," says Vincent Carlson, director of information systems for the education publisher eSchool Media.
Carlson says he relies on oral and written communication skills every day in his IT career. IT leaders need to write project and status reports that people outside of IT can understand. And when you're working with outside contractors, the documentation and presentations that spell out technical requirements, the scope of work, and the intended results must be crystal clear so that there are no costly misunderstandings.
"Writing requirement documents is an art form," Carlson says. "Not all jargon is universal. We have worked with contractors from other English-speaking countries and not gotten what we thought we'd asked for. Had we been more precise in our communications, we would have saved a lot of time and money."
Carlson wishes that he'd taken more English composition classes while in college, as learning how to communicate and write effectively is a crucial skill that every IT leader needs. An IT degree program that includes communication courses is invaluable.
Learn how to collaborate effectively.
Teamwork is an important skill for people in all professions to learn, says Trevor Shaw, director of information technology for the Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood, New Jersey, but it's especially crucial in IT.
One aspect of collaborating effectively, he observes, is to be receptive to the ideas of other employees. Don't just reflexively say no when you hear an IT-related idea that seems impractical. Instead, reserve judgment until you've had a chance to weigh the idea's merits—and see if you can find ways to say yes more often.
"You might see yourself as a visionary or on the cutting edge, but there will always be people in your organization who have ideas and goals that are ahead of yours," Shaw says. "They might not understand the technical challenges, costs, and complexities that make their ideas impractical or impossible in your eyes, but they know what they want. Don't brush them aside. Don't miss the opportunity to help them realize their goals."
Listening to others' ideas provides many advantages in IT. It fosters goodwill among your colleagues, which will prove useful when you need that favor down the road. It makes other employees feel as though their contributions are valued, which improves morale. And it could result in innovations that ultimately benefit the organization.
And in many cases, Shaw notes, if you don't help people achieve their goals, they'll find a way to accomplish them without you. If they don't collaborate on the administrative, financial, and security details of a particular project, the employee and the organization might find themselves facing barriers to success. Collaborating can streamline projects, so learning to work with others effectively is key to success in IT.
An information system security manager for a federally funded research facility says he wishes that he knew that the IT field requires constant learning. His best advice for people starting their IT careers is to keep learning, even after they've completed their degrees and certificates.
"The IT field changes so fast," the security manager says. "It's imperative that you're reading blogs, newsletters, and other sources of information to stay current. When I was just starting out, I wish someone had told me not to be afraid to ask questions. Talk with your colleagues and ask them where they learn new information. You can get some great ideas from the people you work with every day."
Making it in IT.
As these IT professionals' insights show, the best-learned lessons in the IT industry don't always focus on coding languages. Many of them center on how to best invest in yourself, your future, and your teammates. By taking a lesson from these experts and developing your nontechnical skills alongside your tech knowledge, you could set yourself up for a rewarding career. It all starts with the right education and mindset.