Leaving IT may be your best IT career path

March 08, 2011 4:14 PM EST
Complete coverage: Computerworld P100

The best way to ensure a successful IT career in the long run may be to go off the IT reservation. That was my takeaway from the Career Without Boundaries session at the Computerworld Premier 100 conference.

The panelists didn't come right out and say that. But the IT executives on the stage all had done stints in other parts of the business – and brought that experience back. Kate Bass, CIO at Valspar, spent 21 years in finance. Dr. Katrina Lane, senior vice president and CTO at Ceasars Entertainment Corp., has a technical degree but cut her teeth in marketing, focusing on areas such as analytics, media planning and teleservices.

Sheila McGovern, managing partner for the Human Capital division at IBM, has a degree in quantitative business analytics. She started in tech but then moved into the HR field before landing her current job. One day, she says, "I sat down with a business leader and he said, 'You know Sheila, you'll never go any higher with IT.'" So McGovern moved around, working in HR, supply chain, financial systems and finally HR consulting. "A few years ago I came back. I really benefitted from getting on the business side. I wouldn't trade that experience," she says.

Gaining business cred

This movement back and forth is more common between other business units than it is in IT, but such a move can help rising IT stars overcome a major stumbling block for IT executives: The general lack of understanding -– and lack of respect -- for what IT does.

"Running an IT organization is like managing an iceberg. There's only small piece of that anyone ever sees," says Bass. And everyone and their mother thinks they can do that piece it better.

"When you go to legal or finance everyone knows you need an expert," says McGovern. IT is different. "Most people go home and turn on consumer electronics and they work and work better than what they have at work," she says. "And it's only getting worse."

"I left a finance organization, which is very highly respected. You don't have to work at it, whereas in IT that's not always the case," says Bass. But coming in from another group can give an IT executive a level of credibility that may be difficult to achieve for those rising up within the IT ranks.

Leaving IT is not the only way to gain experience. Another way to attack this issue is to embed IT people directly into the business units, a strategy that David Zanca, vice president of IT at FedEx Services, has embraced. "If you want to understand the business units you have to walk in their shoes," he says. But FedEx still fights the good fights against silo mentality. Marketing and IT, even when in adjacent offices, may still not be fully aligned. If you're going to walk in their shoes, why not really walk in their shoes?

Increasingly, the IT career path demands this from IT leaders. IT careers are bifurcating into two groups: The uber-specialists with deep technical knowledge, and IT executives who can manage as business analysts. The great middle of IT organizations is falling away, says Barbara Cooper, CIO for Toyota Operations of North America. So getting very deep technically -– or getting that deep knowledge of the business, will be the career path choices.

The vast middle tier of administrative IT functions will become commoditized and "sourceable," Cooper says. "What's sweeping away is the bureaucratic layer of managers who are mostly administrative in nature. You're either up and into this new frontier or you're sourced."

"The thing that's left is the consultative roles around serious business problem solving and investment strategies for solutions sets for the business," Cooper adds. She has actively recruited from the business to fill those new positions, but it's easier to groom someone from the IT side to learn the business acumen than the other way around. It is, she says, "a new breed."

At Toyota the door to IT now swings both ways. A former CIO for sales and distribution at Toyota, whom Cooper had managed and mentored, left IT to work in the business side. Three years later Cooper hired him back as part of her succession plan. If a tour of duty in the business is important, good mentoring is essential to develop a mature, nuanced management style and to develop the political skills to make it happen, Cooper says.

That's what happened with another mentee of Coopers: 2011 Computerworld Premier 100 IT award winner Doug Beebe, formerly corporate manager of information systems, who was recently recruited by the business to a new position as corporate manager of real estate and facilities.

Cooper may have lost Beebe -- that's a consequence of developing strong business acument and leadership skills in your management. But she's not worried about the brain drain. "This is a way station in his journey for broadening and rounding out his experience. I have a notion that he is destined to come back to the IT line of business."