Synching Soft Skills to the Timeline of Your IT Career

Team leader in project meeting

I've blogged and written on soft skills repeatedly for GoCertify, Tom's IT Pro, and my now-moribund IT Career JumpStart blog over the years. Lately, however, I've been thinking about them from a slightly different angle.

 

Namely, how should soft skills align with one's present career stage as an IT professional? This has led me to formulate some goals as to the kinds and qualities of soft skills an IT pro should plan to cultivate and develop as his or her career advances and changes over time.

 

Stage 1: Early Career (Entry-Level to 3-to-5 years in)

 

At this stage, IT pros are just getting started and will be developing technical interests with skills and knowledge to match. This is an exploratory phase for most of us, and one of great growth and personal development.

 

Though it may seem like a stretch, this is also exactly the right time to get going on developing soft skills, particularly in oral and written communication. Though such skills may not be exercised much on the job at this stage of one's career, they will become increasingly important in later stages.

 

Thus, the time to start digging in and learning these soft skills is before they have become absolutely necessary. That way, when you do need to call on them for work-related activities and responsibilities, you won't have to start from scratch.

 

This is also a good time in one's career to start thinking about how IT and business relate to each other. Sure, technology is great stuff and is usually what gets people interested in IT. Over the long term, however, technology is also what keeps serious IT professionals engaged and involved in their work.

 

Technology is a driving force for them, not just in the day-to-day working through IT projects and processes typical of on-the-job activity, but also in watching and planning for new tools and technologies to put to work later on down the road.

 

It is business, however — making a profit — that ultimately pays for all of this stuff. So it's a good idea to start learning and thinking about the economic and business drivers for things like return on investment (ROI), total cost of ownership (TCO), competitive advantage, and customer experience.

 

Stage 2: Mid-career (3-to-5 years in up through 10-to-15 years in)

 

This is the period when professional advancement begins, and technical interests narrow and focus. It's also the period when people usually move beyond entry-level training and certification regimes (CompTIA A+, Network+, and Security+, Microsoft MCP, Cisco CCENT and CCNA, and so forth) into more focused and demanding professional-level certifications.

 

It's also a career phase during which personal responsibilities usually increase. This often begins to involve leading teams of other IT professionals, if not managing them outright.

 

Thus, this is when you're going to need to call on your oral and written communication skills to do your job. You'll want to be ready to put them to work, and to use them pretty much every day. This is a great time to look for one or more professional mentors.

 

These should be people to whom you can show such work — written and oral communication — and ask for their feedback. They will provide guidance on how to do things better, faster, and more effectively.

 

You'll find yourself thinking more about the business interface with IT as well, because you'll be dealing with (or keenly aware of) budgets, funding levels, head count, and other business and management administrivia.

 

Manager explaining to younger dude

You'll probably still be intimately involved with technology topics, tools, platforms, and more at this stage of your career — learning about them as well as teaching them to others. Your work will be as much about helping others to make maximum and effective use of such things, however, as it will be about doing your own job.

 

This is a trend that will accelerate and continue for the rest of your career, and one that will gradually take it over entirely, if you keep working in the IT patch into a second, third, or even fourth decade in the field. (I'm in my fourth decade of IT right now myself, curiously enough).

 

This is also the career stage at which another set of soft skills becomes increasingly important: leadership and management. Leadership is about guiding and helping others to do their jobs, but also about setting a good example for others to follow in their professional conduct and work activities.

 

You'll want to find relevant books on such topics and read them, or seek out training in these areas and see how others do it (and teach it). The American Management Association has a particularly good curriculum in this area, but so do big training companies like Global Knowledge and New Horizons (many of which come from, or are based on, the AMA curriculum).

 

Stage 3: Advanced/Senior Career (10-to-15 years and more)

 

For the rest of your career, working life is going to be as much or more about soft skills as it is about technology and the tools, platforms, interfaces, and standards that make it work.

 

At this point, you should already have developed serious soft skills across the board in oral and written communications, team building and development, leadership and management. You should know how to design, implement, and maintain ongoing projects and activities.

 

You should be able to handle special and one-off projects with skill and panache. This is the career phase when the ability to relate to and justify technology in business terms — and vice versa, for the benefit of your less seasoned colleagues and co-workers — becomes vital.

 

You must be unafraid to grapple with the issues of how best (and how much) to spend on technology in the interests of achieving business goals and objectives. This means you must continue to hone and develop your portfolio of soft skills, while acquiring and developing new ones related to more and higher levels of responsibility.

 

These often include learning how to work within various legal and regulatory frameworks. You should understand how to communicate and interact with other business functions and processes (in particular HR, accounting, finance, and strategy), and learn how to recruit and retain the most talented IT professionals.

 

Indeed, this part of one's career really is as much about soft skills as about IT know-how. As much as knowing the nuts and bolts of IT, you need to know how to articulate and share a vision of the role of technology and its best applications within a business or organizational framework.

 

If you can do this well, however, and keep turning over your skills and knowledge to reflect current circumstances — as well as anticipate new ones likely to impact your working life — then you should be able to soldier on and do well in IT for as long as you want to.

 

And really, what's better than that? Just remember: Soft skills make a long career possible, and also help to keep it strong, growing and valuable over time.

 

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About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at www.edtittel.com, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.