Choose your path in IT – but stay flexible

It’s a scary thing, a blog – having promised to do it weekly, and on IT-related subjects, you find yourself – just back from a great weekend experiencing art and history in Paris – feeling guilty about not having posted.   The more so, since some people actually seem to be reading it – or opening the page at least!

So I thought I would pick up the e-skills theme from last week.  I try and do some mentoring of people in my IT department at BA, and occasionally they ask what steps they should be planning in their career.

My reply has two parts – first, with regards to a career plan: although it’s definitely worth having one, don’t necessarily expect life to turn out like that.  To be honest, I would have bet a fantastic amount, when I left university, against my becoming CIO of British Airways  – but that’s another story…  However, a plan does enable you to invest in yourself and your career in a planned way and, when faced with one of those unexpected twists of fates that life can throw in your path, at least you have a framework to respond.

The second part, which I propose to those who are not sure if they want to pursue a career in IT, is that there is more than one sort of ‘techie’, that they can pursue a variety of hybrid careers and can develop capabilities that make them valuable across the whole business.

Let me expand on this:  I believe that any IT department needs at least three sorts of leaders.   First there are – for want of a better expression – the ‘uber-techies’.  These people are probably among the most valuable assets any company possesses, though whether most organisations know that is debatable.  These are you most experienced and skilled experts in the company’s IT environments.  They know how it all fits together, what works well and what legacy you should be replacing.  You will be looking for them to solve the problem when there is an outtage. And they also understand the unexploited potential of your systems.

Second there are the hybrid business and IT – or IT and business – managers.   At some point in their past, they cut code or designed systems.  Today, they manage the operations and deliver the new systems.  They are expert at managing internal skills and external providers – and woe betide either group if they try and pull the wool over their eyes.   They know what IT is there for and what IT can do, and what it cannot.   Without these very skilled people, costs run amok and delivery dates start slipping.

Last, and certainly not least, are the general managers who have no technical experience in IT but are interested in it and its potential, and understand that it really matters.   Many of them are fascinated by technology, and they are several roles in IT departments where they can add enormous value.   For instance, in relationship management – explaining IT to the rest of the organisation in plain English, managing your resources and business planning.

So there are many routes into – and out of – an IT department.  I suggest to any aspiring IT professional that they choose one of these paths, be the best they can in it, but always be ready to be flexible.

About paulcoby
I am CIO at the John Lewis Partnership in the UK. I was Chair of SITA - the airline solutions company owned by the Air Transport Community - for 11 years. I am also on the Boards of Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank and Pets at Home. Previously I was Head of BA Services and for 10 years CIO at British Airways. I am interested in Roman and Military History. The views expressed are entirely my own not my employers.

2 Responses to Choose your path in IT – but stay flexible

  1. Wayne says:

    Hi, Paul.

    Which one of these roles do you see your self in now and did the role you wanted to be in change from past to present.

  2. Paul says:

    Well thought out piece and I agree with you on the value of a plan. I assume by flexibility you mean that these three distinct paths could cross? I am currently in the second path with aspirations to more towards the third.

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