How did you end up in a IT Leadership role?
February 2, 2009 8:05 AM   Subscribe

What steps did you take to prepare for and ultimately land your IT leadership position?

Background first. Currently I am working as a Netbackup and Windows sys admin. I enjoy working in the tech and my long term goal is to work into a Director or CTO level position in a medium size corporation of some sort. I have a MA in Cognitive and Social psych right now.

Here is my question. What can I do to prepare for upcoming opportunities? I mean I don't see a lot of degrees that specifically target this type of work, at least not yet. Other then continue to learn everything I can and build a good reputation, I am not sure what else I can do to plan. So what do you suggest? Certifications of some sort? An MBA? A PhD in something? If so, in what? I am location bound at the moment due to my current work but I am opening to moving when able.

So what did you do to prepare and position yourself for this type of role? Any kind of advice or thoughts would be appreciated.
posted by Silvertree to Work & Money (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Managing humans was a really interesting read, going from a coder to a slightly more management level position. I dont think IT management roles have been really defined yet (if they can be) and thus you won't find any formal education. I think certifications (like the recently popular Agile) are mostly BS (search the archives for a recent should-i-do-agile question).
posted by aeighty at 9:36 AM on February 2, 2009

What's worked for me is developing a through understanding of the IT infrastructure, not necessarily from a hardware or software perspective but with regard to the policies and procedures, and then volunteering to work on teams implementing such things and asking lots of questions beyond my job, such as about how budgeting works, etc. The big transition was when I was tapped to lead a major enterprise implementation out of my department and the project was a success. Somewhere in there I started writing a policy document about it and it's now official, and a lot of the folks in other departments I met through that project started to consider me a peer and include me on enterprise wide planning of various sorts. And I really enjoy working with them.

Once that happened my bosses noticed and moved me up the latter a rung. In the meantime I've served in a similar capacity on other projects and been appointed to some interesting sounding responsibilities like being the "data privacy officer" for the system that started all of that. Now one of my bosses has left and I'm considering apply for Director. I need to see how the job description looks to see if it'll be a good fit, let alone earn it, but people are saying I should apply. We'll see.

Point is, for me at least, it wasn't about a degree or certification, its about caring about the issues beyond my department and earning people's respect. The problem is how you'll feel about management responsibilities once you've done all of this, and how you'll perform in the position once there. I've seen some people step up a level and then go back down to where they were because they didn't like it. Others get the opportunity but have had enough of a taste for it that they don't want to move up. It's a big commitment in time and stress. I spend a lot of time these days weighing decisions, reviewing lists, discussing things, and trying to understand people's psychology (most problematically, my own), all without being a director. No budgetary or human resources responsibilities.

Anyway, so project management and curiosity opened the door for me. Sorry I can't tell you about how hard it is to open that second door though. I'm not there yet.
posted by jwells at 9:39 AM on February 2, 2009

Without a lot of experience to back you up, you may want to start with certifications like A+, MCP, etc. These will help you atleast get your foot in the door on entry level positions. If you can afford the cost of tuition I would also look into an Information Systems track at your college. A MCSE, while costly, can also help when going for positions that rely heavily on Microsoft environments.

Getting to the CTO level will take a lot of hands on experience, and will also involve a lot of skills not related to computers at all...but more of a developed "business sense." So perhaps work on a business computing degree? (MBA + IS)

Most importantly tho...just get into the thick of it as much as you can on your own. Read up on different technologies, fix PCs for friends and relatives when given the opportunity...try out any free trials of enterprise level software. Being able to answer questions like, "how much will it cost?" and "how long will it take to deploy?" with some level of comfort. Given that you keep yourself pointed in that direction, over time you will find yourself fitting into a CTO style position with greater confidence.
posted by samsara at 9:46 AM on February 2, 2009

Just want to second what jwells said - get some basic people leadership experience and work your way up from there. His advice on learning about the company, getting on projects is spot on. An MBA will become more important as you go up the ladder but work on getting some management experience first.

Also, to clarify - CIO is generally IT. CTO is a whole other ball of wax and generally is responsible for whatever product the company sells to its customers. So if the company makes heavy machinery, the CTO may be a mechanical engineer, if it makes software the the CTO would probably have a development background.

IT is generally diminishing in importance; much of it is outsourced and in most cases it is considered a cost center. In many organizations the CIO reports to the Chief Operations Officer rather than to the CEO. Just something to think about...
posted by txvtchick at 10:44 AM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm currently in a CIO/CTO role. I used to be an electrical engineer that build TV facilities, now I'm also responsible for a sizable IT group in a major media company. They told me I was being given the IT group because "how hard can IT be?"

Here's what I wished I had better skills at:

Finance - I can't stress this enough. Understanding the basics like ROI, IRR, depreciation, forecasting, hurdle rates, etc. will be hugely beneficial. You don't need an MBA, but a finance course would help.

Project Management - Traditional PMI methodology training amazingly helpful in structuring how an IT group runs.

Risk Management - Managing risk is an important skill set to master. Understanding how to estimate and compensate for risk whether at the project level or at the strategic level is important.

Things I find helpful:

Friends - You should develop friendships with other good workers in other parts of the business. Whomever the 'clients' are of IT, you want to build relationships with those people you will be partnered with later in your career. These personal relationships are invaluable.

Passion - You need to have a passion for technology and proving people with good tools. If you are OK with the status quo, you will suck. If you don't think your users would benefit from Office 2007 and that Office 2003 is 'good enough', you will suck. If you aren't will to try to bring new things and be willing to fail, you will suck. You have to be willing to fight Finance and Legal and HR to try and make the workplace better at your company, otherwise you will suck.

Knowing your weaknesses - You need to learn the hard truth about yourself. What's in your blind spot. You can't always fix it, but you need to be aware of what you are weak in. Develop ways to cover this off professionally.

What I don't think helps:

Certifications - IT leaders don't need certifications, they don't get to touch command lines or even keyboards these days.

MBAs - Look good on a resume, but most leadership roles are assigned based on reputation, not resume. Not to mention the huge in $ and time to get a degree.

Being the smartest guy in the room - Don't think you have to master every nuance of Cisco router blade configs or HP servers or coding methods. Let your people be experts. Be willing to ask your team to explain things to you and then trust them in their expertise. Constantly trying to know more than everyone else is impossible.

Lastly, be nice to everyone. Don't make enemies. There is no benefit to burning any bridge. Be friendly with secretaries, coordinators, the mail room, the security guards, etc.
posted by Argyle at 12:36 PM on February 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

1- Any dumb-ass can get a certification. That doesn't mean they know what to do with it.
2- Be competent. If something is your problem, make sure it gets done.
3- Leadership is the end of the line. Focus first on self-management, then on others-management, THEN on leadership. THEN get your dream job.

I agree with the rest of his statement, but I disagree with this:

Passion - You need to have a passion for technology and proving people with good tools. If you are OK with the status quo, you will suck. If you don't think your users would benefit from Office 2007 and that Office 2003 is 'good enough', you will suck. If you aren't will to try to bring new things and be willing to fail, you will suck. You have to be willing to fight Finance and Legal and HR to try and make the workplace better at your company, otherwise you will suck.

Yes, providing people with good tools is good. But also having the wisdom to know when good enough really is good enough. Don't constantly reinvent the wheel. People want stability in their tools- nothing drives non-IT people crazier than the constant march of IT changes. IT is a *business support* field. Truly being good at IT is understanding its role. An IT department isn't about furthering technology for the sake of it, it's about using the least amount of money to get the best result. Does a certain department NEED the latest and greatest? Absolutely, provide it and support it. But unless there is a business need for an upgrade, it should be avoided. IT's role is to make shit work, and keep it working. That's how they make the workplace better. Not by bringing about changes nobody wants.

(IT story- a huge department I know stayed on Windows 95 until MS quit updating it. Why? The cost of rolling out new operating systems is huge. Not just the cost of the software, but the cost of retraining, and the cost of re-solving all those little problems that creep up. The last few years of the 95 desktops were dirt cheap to maintain. All the problems had been solved. There was nothing the users wanted for, and the fleet of computers had tremendous uptime.)
posted by gjc at 4:06 PM on February 2, 2009

Sorry, but . . . "tremendous uptime" and "Windows 95" don't belong in the same sentence. Unless the phrase "polar opposite of" is in there somewhere.
posted by CommonSense at 8:34 PM on February 2, 2009

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