How IT professionals can learn the skills to pay the bills

Patrick Hubbard, head geek at SolarWinds, runs through some tips and tricks to stay ahead as an IT professional
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IT professionals may be prone to a few professional idiosyncrasies, but certainly aren’t one-trick ponies. This is fortunate, because businesses now require IT professionals to master multidisciplinary skills, adapting disruptive technologies. Meanwhile, businesses still expect “classic” IT skills such as extracting business value and ensuring seamless quality of service for end-users. More than ever, we are expected to be polymaths which, given the pressures of the role, is sometimes easier said than done.

For example, mastering the skills required to successfully manage a modern IT environment is complicated by the growing number of new IT services, along with the seemingly endless emergence of new vendors, offering on-premises, cloud, “as-a-service,” and more. Make the wrong decision with one of these many solutions or vendors and IT professionals have backed themselves into a corner, potentially placing their organisation into tech debt or vendor lock-in.

As an additional challenge, even the cardinality of vendors and service taxonomy is increasing. Remaining abreast of new vendor products and strategies and an ever-expanding lexicon of increasingly ambiguous terms, acronyms, and jargon, requires an increasing percentage of our professional time. The ability to choose the right solution in the right situation is compromised when there are dozens of similarly named solutions, all claiming almost-if-not-quite-the-same capabilities. Again, if you make the wrong decision, you’ve wasted time on a solution that can't do the job required.

So, given these complexities and the kaleidoscopic nature of the role of the IT professional, what can be done to keep on top of the skills required to successfully manage an IT environment? 

To be, or not to be certified?

Certifications were once vital and reliable tools for measuring the progress of an IT professional's career. For the most part, personal investment in certification has been linear, evolving at a historically steady technology pace and offering IT professionals a fixed rate of progress towards achieving a specific expertise. But with hybrid IT as part of the picture, the volume and pace of changes in available technologies and services has jumped, and it may not be possible to maintain the same steady and predictable approach offered by certification planning.

Increasingly, many certifications vary in importance, depending on who you ask. They remain both costly and time consuming to achieve, some great for niche products and technologies while others intended as broad stepping stones to clear qualification. And admittedly, there’s something to be said for the confidence and humble-bragging rights that come from being “certified” in something contemporary and exclusive.

If you do go down the certification route, however, it is vitally important that you choose the right certification path for your career—one that will equip you for the future and then set the stage to reequip you as the future diverges from projections. It’s also good karma to align your certification with your organisation's ambitions, especially if they are paying for it.

You may be asking how an IT professional could pursue a certification if a business simply doesn't have the resources to support you. This happens a lot but generally does not signal the end of the path to IT enlightenment. For example, virtual training and online communities can be sought out where IT professionals can share notes and ideas. Better, they encourage feedback from other professionals, and make it easy to acquire tips to try within their environments. More often than not, it takes a village to raise a versatile IT professional.

Sell yourself

In more than one organisation, the road of relations between IT and sales has been a rocky one, and in extreme cases considered mutually exclusive. Yet by embracing, ahem, a little salesmanship, IT professionals can simultaneously support their organisations, and advance their careers. Take, for example, the sales technique of simplifying content for the target audience. Admins who can cut through service clutter and overwhelming complexity, are viewed by civilians as masters of identifying a solution’s strengths and why it's perfect for an organisation. 

When applied by IT professionals, this skill makes it easier to lead people, process and decision-making. It’s also actually okay for IT professionals to learn to sell themselves—their ideas, solutions, expertise, and experience. If they don't do this, people won't identify the enormous value they bring to an organisation.

So, how can you become a master salesperson? These steps can help:

  • Shift focus from product features and onto the IT issue at hand. This can set expectations around delivery and resource needs.
  • Understand the solution inside out, including when and where it should (and should not) be applied.
  • Put the solution into a process. The IT professional can add consistency, rigor and control, born of experience.
  • Become a presenter. By delivering a persuasive argument, IT professionals can ensure that others know what you're capable of and learn from your conclusions. Also, make sure the pitch progresses. Stagnation is the enemy.
  • Be sure to position value while balancing the cost of investment with time and effort included in the overall cost. 

By following these steps and ensuring you at least occasionally LARP in the role of a salesperson, an IT professional's career can flourish.

Build a foundation

Of course, you can't build a house without solid foundations. So for an IT professional looking to build upon their expertise, it's essential to have the fundamentals down. Developing the maturity to approach monitoring as a discipline, for example, is a skill that will remain relevant regardless of technological advancements. Furthermore, experience with frameworks like DART, (discovery, alerting, remediation, troubleshooting), and SOAR (secure, optimise, automate, report), can allow IT professionals to better embrace disruptive technologies and help ensure that adoption is seamless for an organisation.

Solving complex technical issues while also adding real value to our businesses is core to an IT professional’s identity. Becoming visible experts in managing accelerating IT change is not always easy, however. It’s no longer enough to keep up—we must now stay well ahead of the curve, and be prepared to re-evaluate and change course as necessary in a world of suddenly real, not hypothetical, transformation.

By taking the time to build upon core competencies, and learn valuable new skills, IT professionals will see their careers and organisation continue to evolve. A little stretching never hurt anyone.

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