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Career Counsel

STEPPIN'OUT

Q: I am looking to re-enter IT at a director level. I have 10 years' experience in information technology managing large-scale mainframe and client/server projects. For the past three years I have been a director in a corporate strategy group focusing on long-term strategy. To date, many of the discussions I've had have ended with a concern over my lack of hot new skills. Am I going to have to take one step back before I can take two steps forward?

A: Your first choice should, of course, be a step sideways and then two steps forward. I have to believe that there are companies out there that can use your mainframe and client/server project experience today, while you look for internal opportunities to add "the new stuff" to your portfolio. Maybe it's the director title that is throwing you off track.

I don't think that you will wind up in the top or No. 2 IT seat after your strategy sidebar, unless the move is made within your current company. Then again, is the lack of new skills being used as an easy exit for interviewers who see some other deal breaker and can't or won't say so? Get some honest and objective third-party advice on your interview presentation package.

FEELING THE BURNOUT

Q: I'm the director of IT at a midsize manufacturing company. Among other successful projects, I led a major enterprise resource planning software implementation. The stress and burnout has caught up to me, and I would now like to move into an educational position. How can I make the move from an information technology professional-management position to an information technology teaching position at either the college or high school level?

A: Before you steer your career into the world of education, be careful. Make sure you aren't overreacting to the stress and strain of your ERP project. The world of education can be an extremely rewarding one despite its lower pay scale and lack of equity possibilities. But it is culturally and environmentally very different from what you have been accustomed to.

If you are indeed ready, check out the position announcements in higher education, both in teaching and practicing IT, at www.educause.edu, the Web site of Educause, an international nonprofit association whose mission is to help shape and enable transformational change in higher education through information resources and technologies. And check out www.chronicle.com--the Web site of The Chronicle of Higher Education, which lists some primary education openings as well as college-level opportunities. Also, give serious consideration to the broader universe of nonprofit associations, organisations and foundations. These employers offer similar environmental factors and rewarding missions as does the field of education.

TRANSITION GAME

Q: I am a management consultant in a Big Five firm. Can you tell me what additional background experience or skills companies seek when they recruit new executives? And does the school at which one receives an MBA make that much difference as long as it is ranked within the top 20?

A: The transition from Big Five consulting to corporate information technology is an issue of operating management experience. While your time in a Big Five firm has undoubtedly sharpened your analytical, project management, communication and interpersonal skills, you have not yet had a chance to head up and manage a piece of a business-aligned IT function, with long-term political considerations and performance measurement criteria.

This is, happily, a change readily accepted by most but not all companies with the assumption that Big Five people are smart and savvy individuals who can make the transition successfully. And an MBA from any top 20 university is fine, but there is a bit of difference between the top 10 and the next 10. Within those ranges, choose the school that has the best reputation for your area of interest. For example, look at Wharton for corporate finance, check out Northwestern for marketing and Harvard for entrepreneurial management.

PASSED OVER

Q: I was recently interviewed for a CIO position within my company and was considered one of the top candidates. However, the position was awarded to another candidate. I would like to pursue other CIO positions discreetly, either through search firms or advertised positions. My background is primarily IT (15 years), with the last four years focused on e-commerce. I have both a bachelor's in computer science and an MBS degree. What would be the best way to start the search?

A: The first step, of course, is to craft a great resume. Make sure to emphasise your relevant experiences and accomplishments and get some trusted senior executives, both IT and non-IT, to review it.

Second, keep your eye on the important public sources of position announcements and advertisements--but remember that only a fraction of CIO openings are advertised.

Third, make contact with a select group of search consultants who are well known for their work recruiting chief information officers. There are many directories of executive recruiters, for example, the one available from Kennedy Information (www.kennedyinfo.com) is particularly helpful because it is indexed by industry and functional specialty as well as by geography. You will find it in the reference section of most good public libraries, or purchase a copy - it's expensive but indispensable to an organised search.

NEED A PHD?

Q: I have been in the health-care industry for five years as a director of complex IT shops, and I have an MBA. What are your thoughts on the advantages of a PhD in information systems? Is it a plus or minus--or is it overkill?

A: You are in an industry where many PhDs are routinely working in drug discovery, the research and development function, medical and regulatory affairs, and so on. Perhaps a PhD in information systems would help you gain some missing respect from your user communities, and perhaps it would make you feel better about yourself. If so, then go ahead with your plan, find an appropriate school and just do it; but I doubt that a PhD is necessary for you to do a great job as an IT director. In fact, a PhD in most commercial and industrial venues would by generalization flag you, perhaps unjustly, as an academically oriented individual, one not able to run a fast-paced, high-pressure IT shop. PhDs are usually seen on university campuses and research and development companies that build hardware and software, developing new and emerging technologies.

HOLDING PATTERN

Q: I am an IT engineering manager with 20 years' IT experience and five years' IT technical management experience. My long-range goal is to be a CTO for a small or midsize high-tech company. I'm considering a job change into a senior IT architect position for a large company (20,000 employees). I would not be managing others in this position. Will the lapse in management hurt my chances of getting a CTO position? Would continuous years of IT management fare better?

A: Since you have already managed people, projects and budgets for quite a few years, I recommend going forward with the senior IT architect position. First, functioning in a staff role (it's really very different from line management) will give you the time and experience to really hone your collaborative relationship building and other interpersonal and communication skills since these capabilities are often very visible in a staff position.

Second, the experience of focusing on technological issues, including the application and leveraging of new and emerging technologies, is a critical success factor for your ultimate objective of becoming a chief technology officer. I believe you will be fine as long as you don't get sidetracked out of management for too long.

EXECUTIVE COACHING

Q: I am director of the information systems division, reporting directly to the CEO, for a small company (less than $20 million in revenues) focused on the aerospace community. This is my first executive-level job, and I am currently seeking executive coaching to help me with my career. I have met some opposition in the company about getting this kind of assistance. Does that mean that they expect me to fail? I have almost 20 years' experience in management with 17 years of IT background. Was I out of line to ask for assistance?

A: No, I am quite certain that they don't expect you to fail. It is simply a matter of resources. Unfortunately, smaller companies (and generally privately held companies as well) have less room in the budget for niceties like management training. They also don't have the greater perspective of the need to professionally develop their human resources that larger organisations do. It's just one of the many trade-offs of big company versus small company decisions that many of us have faced in our careers.

CIO VIRTUOSO

Q: I am a 22-year-old IT director for a small but rapidly growing business. I created the information technology department and earned my position by strategically planning and applying technology to our business operations. I've developed our database, Web site, network and data management. I continue to integrate new technology with our business models by successfully hiring, training and managing new employees in the IT profession to deploy our strategy. The pay has been very low compared with other chief information officers, vice presidents and directors.

Should my age or lack of several years of experience hold me back from trying to earn a vice president or CIO title and salary? I am a major part of the success of the company, but how do I convince the president that I am vice president or CIO material?

A: Wow, you have many accomplishments and yet are only 22 years old. I'm impressed, but it sounds like the president isn't - yet - or at least he's not showing it. Unfortunately, your age and years of chronological experience have a negative impact on your compensation since the lack of time and job changes (internal or external) have limited the number and probably the size of the raises you have received beyond your entry-level salary.

A dramatic adjustment may very well be in order to bring your earnings up to reflect your position and level of responsibility, and especially your contributions to the enterprise, not to mention parity with the market. Sit down with your president (get him out to lunch or dinner if possible) and in a firm but positive way, ask him if he is aware of your achievements. Educate him regarding the role of chief information officers and what a good CIO earns in today's economy. Have a number in mind in case he asks. And be prepared to initiate a job search if he doesn't.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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