During the breaks in my classes and with many of the IT professionals I work with, I always hear that their career is coming to a halt. Their feeling is that they are walking in a tunnel with no hope of light. I try to tell them that fatalism is not the only solution; these brilliant minds have much more to do than to await some kind of doom.
Many of the IT Pros, especially who are working as system and network administrators, tend to think that systems and cables are all they know and they tend to freak out when they are introduced to something new. This is something that nobody will believe such brilliant people would say. “Something new” means “some new opportunity.” I recommend every IT pro to go out of the data center and work on something else. One of these is documentation, which looks more than boring to almost every administrator. However, it helps you to develop skills to explain things (technologies, applications, processes whatever) plainly. This skill is then recognized and will make you become a valuable person to talk to; at least you can speak technical issues with the mere mortals in a language that they can understand.
“Something new” is also going into the business. Insisting further on not learning the business side of the things and sticking with the technical issues will put you on a stall or possibly worse, in a downward spiral. You are working in a service job and you have to know the business that you are serving to. Learn what adds value to the business and work on that, starting with the financial statements.
Next thing is the IT pros’ (read: our) inherent dislike for sales and marketing. We work with logic, tasks, checklists and processes whereas the sales/marketing people work with communication, perception and intuition. From our side, sales/marketing is the dark side. My wife is a marketing manager. We have been together with my wife for 10+ years, married for 6+ years. She is an excellent communicator. When she talks, her interpersonal skills immediately surface and she sells. While it is obvious that I cannot be a communicator like her, but taking some sales/marketing related courses will be a good idea for all of us lacking these skills. After all, isn’t career all about selling yourself and your ideas?
To push things even further, we IT pros need to develop our soft skills. As I have just touched, communication is the first skill to master. I have talked extensively on these soft skills before. I will give a small advise here: volunteer for the presentations and leading the meetings. At first you will be uncomfortable but day by day you will get used to it and you will be visible as a leader and will prepare you for the future supervisory role.
Networking is another element and as you would guess, I’m speaking about the business (non-IT) networking. Your performance as an individual is what you must do in order to “earn” your salary but your success to know people who are performers as well is also as important.
Never underestimate the value you can add to anything that you do, even if it is a mundane task of recovering a user’s file from a backup. Restore the file on the user’s desktop/documents, call the user and make sure that he has the file he asked for. If not, restore the file he asks and append the filename with the backup/last modified date, such as file_20140813.txt and tell the user that you have done like this so that he can go back and forth and find the pieces of information he needs. With this small renaming, you did many things:  you made the user understand that you are really trying to help rather than closing the support ticket  you are emphasizing with him and thinking what if the file you restored does not have all the information he needs  you gave him an idea about how to better name his files. Now he is the winner, because he can go back and forth in time with the information and you are the winner because the service you delivered exceeded the expectations. Over time the word will spread and you will be seen as the “enabler” rather than the “IT guy.”
Risky and failing projects are the good areas to shine at. Nobody will volunteer for a failing project just because of the fear of putting the “failed” sticker on their heads. On the other hand, it is highly probable that the project you took had already hit the bottom and the only way is up. If you put the right effort on the project and turn it around, you will get noticed. Turning a failed project into a success is more valuable than being on the success boat that everybody is trying to jump into. What if the project fails? The experience you had on the road will be way greater than the experience you would have on the success boat.
Staying current is another thing you should do. Once flooded with tasks and projects, it is hard to keep current with the IT trends and other areas of interest. Just reserve some time of yours every other day and skim through some RSS feeds and go through a magazine. You will both be on top of the things related to your work and keep yourself fresh on the developments and practices.
Up to a point your career is your responsibility and in the non-IT world, everything is about the human element. In today’s turbulent environment, an excellent system administrator can find himself looking for a job tomorrow just because of a quarter’s income statement. Therefore my recommendation is to stay current and to improve your skills.