How to Advance in your IT Career

By on 08/04/2015.

I wrote previously about How to Start a Career in IT (especially when you didn’t go to school specifically for it). This post will focus on how to advance in your career once you get the job.

I’ll be drawing off of my own life and work experiences, so these tips won’t be guarantees for your own success, but more of a guide around what I have found to be effective.

Learn from My Experience

As I mentioned in my previous post on this topic, I majored in English in college, started out as a graphic/web designer and then made my way into IT via help desk. What I discovered is that you don’t want to stay a help desk guy the rest of your life if you can help it, so I started trying to improve myself. I made my way to sysadmin, then level 1 technical support for a major data storage company, escalations for that same company and now, Technical Marketing Engineer for NFS. That’s not to say I’ve reached the pinnacle of my career, but I feel like I’m in a good place.

So if my career path intrigues you, here are some philosophies/lessons I learned along the way. This stuff extends past the normal “be on time,” “work well with others,” etc. generic advice (which are also very important). This is specific to getting better at your job in IT. I come from a sysadmin/support background, but these tips can apply across other IT roles as well. The first lesson?

You’re Never as Smart as you Think

In IT, you have to have a mix of confidence and humility. Know what you know, but also know what you don’t. And when you don’t know something, don’t act like you do.

When I started as a sysadmin, I was doing Windows AD support. I thought I was pretty good at it until I get to my tech support gig. Then I realized that the extent of my knowledge was limited to creating user and computer accounts. It was eye opening to see how dangerous I was to my previous employers because I had so much power as a domain admin, with so little actual knowledge – but with the confidence of a seasoned admin.

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The confidence came from the fact that I was indeed smarter (or incorrectly assumed I was) than some of the people in those jobs, but that’s like being the biggest ant. In actuality, I was kind of an idiot. And that lesson has stuck with me – I still feel kind of dumb and I know that no one knows everything and there is always someone out there smarter than you are. Always.

A lesson that came from that was….

Know your Fundamentals

I used to scoff at interviews that asked about the OSI model. “Who even uses that?”

osi-network-layer-cats1

FSMO roles? Psh. No one cares about those.

Packet traces? Waste of time.

Boy, oh boy… wrong about all of those. Yes, they are some very basic, tedious things. They can be really boring. You might not use them all the time. But they are all very, very integral to being a solid IT person, depending on your desired role. Yes, if you are a Linux admin, you probably won’t need to know about FSMO roles. But if you ever touch a Windows Active Directory environment with any sort of administrator access, you better know your roles.

The OSI model is ideal, not just for knowing networking, but overall troubleshooting methodology. You follow the same steps in troubleshooting as you use in the OSI model and you limit the number of times you spend hours working on an issue only to find you skipped the “is it plugged in” step.

And packet traces? Awesome, especially if you know the OSI model. You save so much time troubleshooting knowing your way around a trace, even if only at a basic level.

Having those skills will get you far in your IT life. But they aren’t the only skills you need…

Always Be Learning

Technology changes faster than many people can keep up with. It is your responsibility as an IT professional to at least be *aware* of the changes. And, if you feel like you aren’t quite up to snuff in your current job but can’t find time during the work day to get better, stay later. Work on stuff at home instead of watching a movie or playing video games. Try to enjoy what you are doing – turn it into a hobby.

Now, that’s not to say you should ignore work/life balance, because that’s super important, too. But consider the time you put in early in your career (before spouse/kids, etc) to be an investment for your future career. Work harder now so you can enjoy the work/life balance later, when it *really* counts.

As an example, I used to put in tons of hours after work to play in the lab. I’d work on it from home rather than firing up the PlayStation. I got better at my job. But then I started getting more responsibilities, like on-call, weekend work, travel. Some of that was a cool experience, but when me and my wife were expecting our first child, I knew that lifestyle could not last. Luckily, my hard work up front gained me enough knowledge and credibility to find a job that better fit my new work/life balance needs.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Along the same lines of the above is to ensure that you’re not doing unnecessary work if you can help it. Make everything you do have a goal and an end in sight. Hard work, if done correctly, pays off. Hard work without a plan just makes you frustrated and burned out.

Find a Mentor

The key to your career success is not really always about you. It’s often about other people. One of those people is your mentor.

This should be someone you respect and look up to. Someone who is in a career spot you see yourself wanting to be in (not meaning you want to take their job, however). Ideally, this person enjoys their work and is good at it. They aren’t disgruntled and constantly complaining. They work well with others. They are resourceful. They aren’t arrogant.

Even if your mentor has some negative traits, you should know enough to pick the traits out that you want to epitomize and start working towards that.

Keep in mind, however, that a mentor/mentee relationship is a two-way street. The mentor is not there to bail you out constantly or do your work. Try to respect their time and offer help with menial tasks like building out labs, offloading some low hanging fruit tasks from them, etc. Ask questions, but don’t keep asking the same ones over and over. Show that their efforts are effective and being rewarded with you getting better at your job.

Self-promotion Sucks, but it’s Necessary

I learned a few years back that, no matter how many calls I took/cases I closed, no one knew who I was or how I was doing at my job. Managers generally have a ton of people they have to deal with and are usually focused on the people who aren’t doing as well as you might be doing. And unless the people you help are calling constantly to rain praise to your manager (hint: they don’t), then your efforts are going unnoticed.

The trick is not to be too obnoxious about it. No one likes a braggart. So do subtle things.

  • Answer an email after work hours? CC your manager.
  • Get an email from someone who liked your work? File it away in a folder to include around review time.
  • Volunteering for projects? Keep your manager in the loop.

In addition, try to drum up visibility by coming up with things that help the whole team. Just remember that visibility can be a double-edged sword, so don’t commit to projects you can’t follow through on.

Run Towards the Fire

I’ve found that most people have a comfort zone. If you worked on Windows all your life, you tend to hide when a Linux issue comes up. Unfortunately, Windows admins outnumber Linux admins substantially. So who’s going to work on the Linux issues?

In my career, we had plenty of situations where people would try to avoid working on something due to comfort level. But eventually, I realized that if I ran towards those undesired technologies, I’d be in an enviable position of being the only person who knew them.

And once you got up close to these technologies, if you are armed with the fundamentals, they really weren’t that hard. Doing this becomes an instant source of visibility, as you are now the “go to” person for that tech. And all you had to do was volunteer.

The only thing left is not to screw it up. :)

A good example in my career is my current role of Tech Marketing in NFS. As I mentioned, I started out as a “Windows guy.” Then I realized how many other “Windows guys” were out there. Some good, some bad.

So I branched out. I took on NFS, as well as CIFS/SMB. And what do you know, I also got multiprotocol. Three NAS specific areas that weren’t that different, fundamentally, but that hardly anyone else knew at any sort of depth. It pays off to run towards the fire.

Don’t say NO.

This is a tricky one – you don’t want to overburden yourself, but you also don’t want to be seen as the person who doesn’t want to help. It’s especially important early in  your career to take on as much work as you can. This not only looks good to managers, but it also gives you TONS of practice. However, too much work can make you ineffective overall. At some point, you will have to decline to do something, but you have to make sure you say no without saying no. This is an area I’ve always struggled to find a balance with, as I want to help, but I don’t want to be working until midnight. :)

Perhaps offer to do it at a later date. If someone objects to the suggestion, ask them what task on your list needs to be postponed to do this more important task you are being presented with. You might end up with less work overall, as well as the perception of being a team player willing to help.

But what if it doesn’t work?

What if I’m not being promoted/getting raises?

Well, there are a variety of possible reasons for this. It’s possible you aren’t that good at your job. But we’ll assume that’s not the case…

It could just be that there are politics at play. Or your manager isn’t noticing your efforts. Or there isn’t room to advance. Whatever the reason, there is an exit strategy…

Always Be Interviewing

Yes, it sounds drastic, but that’s a reality in IT – you rarely will find a job you stay at your entire career. Your first job will not be your only job. And the bitter pill to swallow is, you will almost always get a better raise changing jobs than you will staying in one. So keep your resume up to date. Track your accomplishments. And keep looking on job sites for new, interesting careers that may pop up.

You should always aim to stay somewhere as long as possible, but be prepared for the fact that you won’t. Regardless of what happens, always try to learn as much as possible in each job, because that’s how you build your experience and advance in IT.

Justin Parisi
Tech Mktg Engineer at NetApp
Justin is a Tech Marketing Engineer for all-things NFS around Data ONTAP at NetApp. He is a VMware vExpert, Cisco Champion, and a member of the NetApp A-Team. He also enjoys comic books, video games, photography, music, film, and current events/politics.

4 Comments

  • Yo

    Hello Justin,

    I have a question about how to advance in my career. I’m currently working as a data center tech aka rack monkey. However I am in a mature sight which no longer does rack prep so I am working a lot with server provisioning. I have a certain amount of knowledge and understanding of how things work. I know some Linux so my question is what will be a good way to acquire knowledge to step up my game. Because most sources I go to are either way too basic or assume I have advanced knowledge.

    • Justin P

      My advice? Make it a hobby outside of work. Tinker around. Build an ESXi or RedHat KVM server and create some VMs of Linux OSes. That will give you two things:

      1) Experience configuring and building a virtualized environment
      2) A sandbox to play with stuff without worrying about breaking things because you can always revert the images to a snapshot.

      Once you get more comfortable with that, start playing with containers and Docker.

      There are plenty of jobs available for Linux admins, as well as people who have virtualization experience and container familiarity. And you can learn all of those things for FREE.

      Also, join Reddit forums for Linux admins and simply read and learn.

      As you pick up the skills, start adding them to your resume. Just don’t claim to be an expert unless you are willing to answer expert-level questions.

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  • Great article! Just found it today.

    Congratulations… I will back later to make some more comments.

    “You’re Never as Smart as you Think”

    “Always Be Interviewing”