The evolution of Computer Science, or Information Technology, professionals has been fascinating to watch. Initially, it comprised mostly of introverted and awkward individuals who found a safe space in coding and developing in an otherwise confusing and harsh world. Back then, technical ability trumped it all. Taking the technical “geek” and putting them in the basement was the old joke. That was pre-2000 and so much has changed since then.
Now it is 2021 and we are finding technical fit, industry expertise, educational background, who you know, timing (a.k.a. luck), and certifications, all contribute to why a particular candidate gets the offer over another. Behind those reasons, there is something arguably more important that sets some ahead of the pack, and it’s often referred to as the “it factor”. No longer does technical ability trump all other factors.
If you are considering a career in information technology, consider the following traits that are now commonly required for many of the coveted IT roles.
Top Traits Necessary for Top IT Roles
Every facet of IT will have different types of roles all of which require various traits. But there are many commonalities you must consider as they are no longer “wants” and have evolved into “must-haves”.
Traits You Either “Are” or “Are Not”
These 5 traits are not necessarily ones you can work on and get better at. They are skills or features of yourself that you either possess or do not possess.
- Love Technology
- Love To Learn
- Creative Thinker
- Loves A Good Challenge And Trying New Things
- Asynchronous Or The Ability To Work Multiple Streams At Once
Skills You Can Work On Or Improve
The remaining traits mentioned are ones you can work on and continue to hone. There are many resources out there that will assess your ability and give you tips on how to improve. Others will develop as you become older and wiser and have made mistakes to learn from.
- Team Player
- Ethical And Trustworthy
- Teachable and Coachable
- Ability To Talk In Technical And Non-Technical Terms
- Understanding The Business And End-User
- Knowing One’s Limits And When To Ask For Help
- Willingness To Document
- Ability To Work Through Ambiguity
If you want to excel in the tech world, you need to geek out on technology. This field evolves at a pace that would make The Flash seem geriatric. If you are not fascinated by this field, then I would not recommend diving in. The most successful professionals in IT are those who hear about a new technology or language and get excited.
This is the first one mentioned because without a love of technology, there is no reason to contemplate a career here. It is a Pass/Fail prerequisite.
Love To Learn
A hunger for perpetual continuing education is essential for an IT career. Similar to #1 (Love Technology), continually learning will be a major factor in an IT career. Curiosity is a human trait that has advanced our way of life to what we know today. And technology is the leader of the pack in that advancement. A strong desire to learn is vital.
This trait is also two-fold.
First, find an area in IT that really interests you and do a complete deep dive. Success in IT requires one to have extremely deep knowledge and practical usage expertise in one area.
But on the flip side, you will also need to have a working knowledge of all technology, how it works together, and how it impacts business.
There is the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Being a generalist in IT might get you into the field, perhaps in a Helpdesk or Desktop Support role, but it will not catapult you like being a specialist will. Have that general working knowledge of all things IT, but really double-down on one and learn it beyond measure.
Pro-tip: Make sure whatever you become “master” of, is not a dying language or technology. That would suck.
Whether you are working on a team or you ARE your company’s IT department, creative thinking skills will be vital to solving more complex problems that inevitably arise.
No, I am not going to tell you to “think outside the box”. But solving complex issues in technology require the ability to come at problems from many different angles, possibly ones you have never tried or considered before.
If you can hone your creative thinking skills, you will be able to tackle more issues as they come to your desk, making you more valuable to your organization.
Loves A Good Challenge And Trying New Things
While some could argue this skill could be developed, it fits more in the category of “either you like a challenge, or you do not”. For a long, successful IT career, you will need to try many, many new things, and tackling challenges will be a daily occurrence sometimes.
Having the ability to work on multiple streams at one time.
There will indeed be tech roles where you can work on one project or task straight through to fruition. However…with that being said, it is the exception and not the norm.
Most tech roles will require you to not only work on a team, but you will have to work asynchronously. That means you may hit a snag, roadblock, whatever, and will need to do some research, or post a question on Slack or some forum to get your answer. Seems simple, right?
Well, how patient are you? Working asynchronously means once you post that question to the team or forum, you will have to WAIT. This differs from a synchronous workflow where you would call a meeting, disrupt other people’s workflows, and have a scheduled time to work through an issue.
Having the ability to switch gears while you wait is vital so that you can work with companies that have adopted this type of workflow.
Yes, this one sounds so cliche. But I am not talking about everyone sitting around, holding hands, singing Kumbaya. Being a team player means you understand that everything is not about you. Sometimes your idea will not be the one that gets put into production and launched. Sometimes you will need to stop what you are doing and help a team member with their code. Sometimes you will have to participate in code review even when you do not feel like it.
In development, it is important to work collaboratively as a team. No one person has all the answers and if you have a great team who all contribute, then amazing things can be accomplished. Also, organizations are tearing down the “siloed” structure that was so prevalent in the earlier days of IT.
It also makes people want to work with you, which is more of a long game that can reap amazing benefits throughout your career.
Ethical And Trustworthy
Being ethical and trustworthy in IT is non-negotiable. When companies allow you to touch their code, information, or network, they want to feel secure that their employees are going to do good and not evil.
In the wrong hands, a company can be taken to its knees if there is a data breach. While organizations need to have protections in place, nothing will end your IT career faster than being pegged as unethical or untrustworthy.
No one cares if your previous employer did you wrong and you feel slighted. Take the high road, leave, and do not give in to temptation. We have personally witnessed this happen and no matter that person’s skills, we will never place this individual after having heard of their actions upon being let go.
Your ethical standards need to be beyond reproach at all times. If you cannot resist the temptation to go into restricted areas, or read someone else’s stuff, then you either should not enter the world of IT or you need to work on this trait before entering into it. Organizations put their very existence into the hands of their IT department. And the legal ramifications of a screwup can impact not only you, but the entire company, and its customers.
It’s a pretty big deal. So, take it seriously. Seriously.
Teachable And Coachable
As with so many of these traits, this one is important regardless of your career path.
You do not know everything. You never will. And you will make mistakes along the way. Being open to feedback and learning from it is extremely important, especially in the tech world. Due to everything developing so rapidly, you will need to lean on others to keep up. When you are working on a team, you may have to adapt to how things are done at the organization.
Listen to what is being shared with you. Think about it. Process it. Then determine how you will use the feedback or coaching in the future.
Ability To Talk In Technical And Non-Technical Terms
This is a trait that has increased in importance over the years. There are times when you have to gain buy-in from stakeholders, customers, or end-users. These people, more often than not, are not as technically savvy as you. Some may not be technically savvy at all. So if you need their buy-in (or funding) and you are not able to communicate in non-technical terms, you may find your project or product gets canceled.
This is a practiced skill you can work on. We all have non-technical people in our lives. Some you might even coin as “technologically challenged”! These individuals are great resources. Find a technical concept you understand and try to explain it to your non-technical friend or family member. Keep trying until they get it, understanding that it is YOU who are learning and working on a skill, not them. So if it is not going well, YOU are the one who needs to try harder, try coming at it from a different angle, or check your own biases and identify where you are making assumptions and speaking over their head.
It is not easy, but it IS doable to improve in this area.
If you are an extremely structured individual who likes routine and uninterrupted work, then IT might not be for you. Not to sound like a broken record, but gone are the days of silent, siloed teams with developers all doing their own thing.
Many circumstances can happen in IT that can alter your day from minute to minute.
- A server could crash.
- A website could get hacked.
- A new threat could be identified.
- The network could go down.
- An important file could get deleted.
And if a higher-up needs something restored and done now, then you have to be willing and able to shift your focus on a dime. No two days are alike.
The other area of ambiguity is when you will work. While most jobs will be standard business hours, there are times when you need to stay late or log on in the middle of the night. Maybe an employee was working on the website at 10:00 at night and accidentally took the website down. Or maybe your server crashed at 2:00 AM and now 20 of your client’s websites are down. Or perhaps deployment of your app is not going as smooth as hoped and you are working into the evening.
Ask any tester, developer, or project manager, nasty bugs show up as you are all heading for your weekend. It never fails.
Understanding The Business And End-User
Your expertise will not matter if it does not benefit the company or if it has a terrible user interface (UI). If you wish to climb the corporate ladder, you will need to understand the business side of things. CIOs, CISOs, CTOs, CDOs, etc., need to be technical business professionals, not just really technical professionals who happen to be in business.
Application Developers also need to think about this. If you are developing an app or software, but your end-user finds it clunky and not intuitive, then it is not going to take off.
Knowing Your Limit And When To Ask For Help
The ability to know when it is time to reach out to your network is a great skill to have. All too often, a person can waste valuable time trying to figure out an issue on their own when it is very likely someone has already figured out your issue and you simply need to ask for their help. Forums are great resources to use. Google is amazing. I cannot tell you how many times a senior developer will simply say “I just Googled it!” and they were able to figure out something in minutes after a different developer had spent hours upon hours trying to figure out their issue.
Throughout your career, maintain relationships with others in IT. Use each other as resources and create your own little “brain trust.” A little “quid pro quo” goes a long way in the professional sphere.
Willingness To Document While You Troubleshoot Or Develop
Going back to document your work after the fact is highly frowned upon in the development world. It is all too easy to forget specific steps or all that was tried. Getting in the habit of documenting simultaneously while working will have many benefits so continue to hone that skill.
The other factor here is organizations will employ you to develop software or specific applications, etc. Not adequately documenting your work is unacceptable simply because you likely will not be working there forever. If you have fancy-dancy code that is clever and cute, but not intuitive, having another developer waste time figuring out what you did is a time-suck and will not create a good reputation for yourself, no matter how great your coding skills are.
Just be a gem and document!
Ability To Work Through Ambiguity
A skill not talked about enough is the ability to make decisions with the information you have, even if it is not the whole picture.
While making decisions with incomplete data is not ideal, it is a common reality, especially the more senior you are in your role. Whether you are freelancing and creating an application for someone who is terrible at clearly communicating what they want and need, or if you are on a large team at a Fortune 500 company developing in real-time with only some of the information you want or need, you must be able to forge ahead.
And in the tech world, specifically agile development, working in this way is typical. Just go. Develop. Start. It can be extremely costly to wait around for all possible outcomes to be defined and mapped out. There are many resources for developing this skill.
If you are still considering a career in Information Technology, and you feel like you have the above traits (or most of them), then your next step is to dabble.
There are many ways to do this, but a few quick tips:
- Check out codecademy.com. It is a very easy-to-use program that will teach you quite a bit.
- Literally Google “where to learn to code online” and you will see list after list of resources.
- Try a coding game. While there are many, a great first one to try is Minecraft: Education Edition.
- Try a kid’s STEAM/STEM toy. They are designed to teach without getting bored.
The ability to get along with people, communicate with others, fit in with various levels of management, mesh well with the team, etc…has never been more important. I would argue that 50% of the time, the reason a candidate is chosen over another closely qualified candidate is because of these intangibles, more so than a “perfect” technical fit for the company.
The challenge here is how do you develop or enhance these skills if you either don’t have them or would like to be better. Here are some practical ideas to implement:
- Read the book “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie. Originally published in 1936 and holds up! The essence of the book is simple: Be interested in others and let them talk and they’ll love you for it.
- Toastmasters. An international group, operating in small local groups, to help any person (age, career focus, experience, etc) get better at things like public speaking, communication, and leadership skills.
- Research your audience. We live in a social media world. If you know whom you are interviewing or meeting with, a simple search on Facebook or LinkedIn could show you some interests that you and your interviewer may share which is an easy and comfortable conversation starter.