IT's Superheroes Snag New Skills

Kevin Joyce is taking on tasks that aren't usually given to a network manager.

He's part of a committee to make sure that his employer, St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Utica, N.Y., is prepared for a disaster. And he recently volunteered to be the IT representative on another hospitalwide committee, even though he's not yet sure of the committee's focus.

Joyce says he believes he has to step up to ensure that the organization is successful and to help advance his own career.

"I think people recognize who's willing to take on extra projects, who's willing to volunteer," says Joyce, who wants to eventually move into management.

Joyce's situation isn't unique. Layoffs and hiring freezes have left many IT professionals with new tasks and additional responsibilities. While some might grumble about being overworked, the savvy ones are pushing past the negative vibes and learning to see opportunities in this rough economy. They're gaining new skills and raising their visibility as they take on roles that once would have gone to others.

"There is always opportunity in the midst of change in an organization. That's an important dynamic for people to know," says Karyl Innis, founder and CEO of The Innis Co., a Dallas-based career consulting firm.

Innis says the prospects for job growth are real, even if IT budgets are stressed and workloads are high. Companies still need to get on with technology projects, and employees who are willing to accept new responsibilities in order to get those projects done can advance their own careers in the process.

That's because these high-octane workers are able to build relationships, become experts in specific technologies and demonstrate leadership skills that they didn't have a chance to showcase during better economic times, Innis says.

Taking the Long View

This isn't about working more hours, Innis notes.

"It's about making somebody's footprint wider and deeper," she explains. "The people who are plotting for their future are those people who tend to look at things big-picture and work toward the specifics. They're likely to be asking, 'Can I learn something here that I can use tomorrow?' "

Many IT workers are asking themselves that question. In Computerworld's 2011 Salary Survey, 44% of the 4,852 IT professionals polled said that taking on new tasks in their current positions is the No. 1 way for them to advance their careers and earn more money.

Indeed, many IT workers are looking ahead to better opportunities: 40% of the respondents said that they expect to be promoted to a higher-level position five years from now.

Shannon Stoltz, a former techie who now works with IT departments as a consultant with Houston-based SheaKay Communications, says people who are capitalizing on opportunities in today's work environment will find themselves well positioned for advancement when the job market starts to expand.

Who Cashes In?

Storage, Other Special Skills Pay Off

Salaries are on a slow upswing. But who, exactly, will take home the largest pay hikes?

Computerworld's 2011 Salary Survey found that, besides IT executives, those who saw the biggest increases in total compensation from 2010 to 2011 were storage professionals (administrators, architects and engineers), who received an average bump in pay of 2.6%. Next in line were IT security specialists, with an average 2.3% increase, followed by IT security managers (2.1%) software engineers (2%) and network managers (1.9%).

Job title and skills, however, are only part of what gets IT workers more money.

"Salaries are migrating up," says Robert Keefe, CIO of Mueller Water Products and past president of the Society for Information Management. But he says he's seeing companies reward IT workers who are willing to put in extra effort, by paying out project-based performance bonuses or bonuses for stepping in to fill gaps.

Also, IT workers are increasingly recognized and compensated not just for their technical prowess, but for their ability to help drive their organizations forward, says Karyl Innis, CEO of The Innis Co. What matters in this matrix is whether a person is willing to work hard, do what needs to be done, learn the business, work collaboratively with others and learn new skills to stay relevant.

"Opportunities come to those who show a good work ethic, are fulfilling their responsibilities and are demonstrating the ability and willingness to help the health of the organization," she says.

There's no question that having a "go get 'em" attitude right now will pay off when better times (with bigger budgets and bigger staffs) return, according to Stoltz.

"I've yet to see anyone who truly stepped up and played as a team player and put their organization and projects in front of their agenda stay in the same role for years, unless it's their choice," she says.

Standouts in the Crowd

Mike Miller, director of information security at Media General in Richmond, Va., says he sees his IT workers taking on roles and responsibilities that they didn't have prior to the downturn. As a result, they're learning new and valuable skills; for example, some staff members were pulled in to work on the company's virtualization project.

Miller acknowledges that he hasn't been able to hand out big raises, but he hopes to provide more recognition when the economy recovers in earnest. He says he has already told one administrator who has shown management potential that he'll be in the running when a position opens up.

Joyce L. Gioia, president and CEO of The Herman Group, an Austin-based management consultancy, says managers need to take that approach and let workers know now that they're valued and that more recognition is ahead.

"If employers do not understand and reward -- or at least recognize -- the extra effort that some employees are making, they ignore them at their own peril, because they'll be the first to go," she says.

Edward A. Ruffolo, director of IT at Miron Construction in Neenah, Wis., says his staffers have shown a willingness to advance themselves as the company has pushed ahead with key initiatives.

"It's really a great opportunity -- if you want to look at it in a positive sense, and you might as well -- for those workers left behind," he says. "Now you're being forced to step out of your box."

Ruffolo says he's not taking that for granted, either. His company has tried to recognize employees who put in some extra effort, by preserving as many perks as possible, both large and small -- from bowling outings to employer-paid health insurance. He says he also likes to extend a simple "thank you" to individuals who have taken on new responsibilities.

He says that approach is paying off, because he's now able to cherry-pick top talent that's undervalued elsewhere as he starts to accept résumés from applicants interested in an open position.

"We're going to find out who took care of their people during the downturn and who [didn't]," he says, "because those who did are going to be propelled forward, and those who didn't are going to have some significant losses."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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