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5 ways to change your IT career specialty

Techies care passionately about their work, which encourages them to develop in-depth expertise, follow new trends, and pay attention to career opportunities. Those goals don't always align. If you see colleagues find advanced jobs in new environments, it may be time to investigate what a move might mean to your career and what to do to snag a great opportunity.

Changing from one IT specialty to another seems natural—how else do you stay up to date? No matter how much you might have loved Novell NetWare, you certainly couldn't make a living at it anymore. So any IT professional has to find a balance between "develop expertise that is in demand today" and "get ready for tomorrow." Technologies grow and becomes simultaneously more diversified and specialized. If you’ve spent several years in one tech specialty, it’s easy to imagine that some hot new tech can offer a better chance for growth and new opportunities. This is especially true if you feel that you have reached an impasse in your career growth.

The grass may seem greener elsewhere, but nothing guarantees that adding a new buzzword will pay better or last as long as what you’ve been doing. On the other hand, it might be more fun. A change of professional scenery can make a big difference in your daily outlook and your long-term career. So the first step in making a major job transition is to learn about the opportunity with respect to its potential longevity and how to maximize your efforts to move.

But as industry veterans attest, there’s more to making a successful transition than checking the boxes on the skills list. Take lessons from these specialty switchers who have been there and done that.

Increased specialization

Often, your choice is to go deeper (learn a lot more about an existing technology sphere) or go wider (offer breadth across a knowledge domain). But there's a third option: Make sure that technology is secure.

Britton White took his diverse IT-related experience to the next level when he found an opportunity to move into the IT security sector. White’s experience didn't include social engineering, infosec, or compliance. But he saw a healthy career pathCybersecurity Ventures believes the field will approach 3.5 million unfilled job openings by 2021.

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“I quickly learned the ropes,” White says. “I formed tight bonds with other team members, did an extensive amount of research in all related matters, and performed well on my client engagements.”

(White is not alone when it comes to learning network security skills. See "Nontraditional pathways to a cybersecurity career.")

But business success is not just a matter of learning new tech tricks, particularly when you make a transition to a new role. White advises, “Understand if any special or different personality traits are required to be effective,” particularly in positions that require significant interaction with people, in addition to technology.

Sharing at the core

Server administration demands detail-conscious expertise and immediate intervention when things go wrong. That means incumbents need to stay current with trends, system updates, and patches, and to be available at times that aren’t always convenient to their off-work lives. Chad Smith spent most of his career as a Linux administrator performing front-line operational work mixed with systems architecture and network security. Smith got tired of being on call all the time. "Continuing as a Linux sysadmin would mean I was working weird hours for (effectively) the rest of my life,” he concludes.

As part of his ongoing self-education, Smith became an early adopter of Amazon Web Services and immersed himself in the cloud for a few years. The expertise he developed made him stand out. A technical training organization saw his credentials, contacted him, and asked if he was willing to teach the subject. “The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that I absolutely have to keep my knowledge current, and since all cloud hosting providers are evolving quickly, this is taking an increasing amount of my overall time," he says. "I maintain my skills by consulting, so I’m not just teaching the technology—I’m doing it—and that keeps me sharp.”

Smith’s overarching recommendation is, “Don't hoard knowledge. Don't blame others for your mistakes.”

Vertical movement

Some career changes are less about technology specialty than changing focus or responsibility. For example, Michael Henderson traded an engineering career at a multinational corporation for a CTO position at a startup. As a software engineer who moved into management, he says, "My experience went from thinking, 'How can you be the most efficient at getting work done?' to thinking, 'How can you structure your team to be the most efficient at getting work done?'” The change from managing a single line of products to overseeing the entire technical function of a fast-growing startup presented a significant change, he says, but “the move to CTO felt like the natural next step.”

Senior management positions like CTO require that you pull back from the details of the technology you’re managing, meaning you have to make decisions without the deep level of understanding that was a requirement in the previous job. “The key is to get comfortable knowing that you won’t know all the technical details, but you can rely on other people that do,” according to Henderson. “Don’t try to do it all.”

When Henderson decided he was ready to make a change, his first step was not technical but was rather a social change. “My recommendation? If you’re looking to make a switch, network,” says Henderson. “Networking isn’t about knowing everybody in the room but quickly uncovering those that you connect with.” 

From patient care to having patience

Not every IT transition is a parallel move. Plenty of tech-savvy people who are not specifically trained in technology fields find themselves drawn to careers in the IT world. Darnell Morgan found his way to IT through a successful career as a medical professional, with five years in clinical informatics. “I went from an emergency room nurse to a software engineer for healthcare systems, says Morgan. He took steps to learn technical skills including SQL, server administration, and cloud services management. “The transition was hard and tough, especially because I loved patient care,” Morgan says.

The change in careers let Morgan apply both his existing and new skills and gain a better work/life balance. When he was in healthcare, he worked 12-hour shifts, six nights a week. Now, he has a flexible schedule that allows him to work from home.

Morgan advises pursuing a career change toward IT regardless of whether you are already in an IT job or from an unrelated field like nursing: “Take a leap of faith, especially if you know you have what it takes to be successful in the industry. Rely on your skill set and go for the gold!”

An external view

Some career changes are enabled by non-IT professionals who understand the market and have experience helping IT folks set themselves up for change and then execute successfully. Career consultant Lisa Prior offers her perspective about what to learn and how to adjust your perspective for the best results, starting with some decidedly nontechnical advice. Prior says, “Before you dive into tactics, think like the CIO of your career. What do you want to achieve by making a switch? What is your personal vision for your career as an IT professional?” Companies need employees who have deep expertise in their specialties, but they also need people who can think and work across a range of specialties. According to Prior, “Your goal should determine the path you choose to gain the experience you seek.”

While not all technical disciplines are equal, Prior says becoming deeply skilled in a field takes 10,000 hours. “Leadership experts have found that soft skills such as collaboration, effective communication, and negotiation begin to matter more after 10 years, and this is especially true if you want to play a role in influencing the IT strategy of a team or an organization,” she says. Expect switching IT specialties to take a significant investment of your time, energy, and resources.

Five lessons

Making a career change is inevitably difficult and time consuming, but as these examples demonstrate, they can also be highly rewarding. Consider these five recommendations as a starting place for a career change that can take you to a new and more satisfying position:

  1. Don’t allow a "job description" to deter you from applying for a job. Job descriptions provide a blueprint for what you are expected to do. IT is not about what you learned in school; it’s about what skill set you bring to the table to be able to take things to the next level.
  2. Become technology agnostic—no more religious-style defense of any one product or technology.
  3. Get certified! Degrees are great, but there is no follow-up for a degree. The associations that offer certifications require continuing education units and additional training to ensure you are in the know of the constant changes the industry sees. 
  4. Whether you're looking to move from one specialty to a completely different one in your current organization or you are interviewing externally, do some reconnaissance (if at all possible) on the team and leadership of that department.
  5. Expect to devote significant time and personal resources to understanding your new role even after you make the change.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.