Main image of article 8 Early Career Lessons from CIOs (And Mistakes to Avoid)
Aspiring tech leaders can learn a lot from CIOs who have successfully navigated the journey to one of tech’s top positions. The takeaways from their early careers can prove invaluable in shaping your professional growth. To help you succeed, we asked veteran CIOs to share some of the key career lessons that they’ve learned. They agreed that it’s better to know the following things sooner rather than later:

Embrace Maintenance Roles and Routine Projects

You don’t need a steady diet of high-visibility projects to move up the ladder. Don’t shun maintenance roles or fight against the decision to prolong the life of a legacy system, advised Richard Harpur, a former CIO and CEO who currently works as an information security officer for FEXCO and Pluralsight instructor. There just aren’t that many opportunities to tackle marquee projects when 80 percent of software budgets go into maintenance, support and upgrades. “However, you can still differentiate yourself and be viewed as a rising star if you use your knowledge to add value by suggesting new features sets and improving what is already there,” he added. John Miller, founder and CIO at Real-CIO Consulting, agrees. “You have to tackle some projects that aren’t fun to learn your craft, especially when you’re just starting out,” he noted.

Seize Leapfrog Opportunities

Even if you’re performing software maintenance upgrades or fixing defects, you can still keep your technical skills up-to-date and establish yourself as a top performer. Aspiring leaders who master the latest version of in-demand technologies such as Node.js or Angular frequently have the opportunity to leapfrog over complacent colleagues with far more experience, Harpur noted. It happens all the time in the industry.

Plan Your Career and Work Your Plan

If your heart is set on becoming a tech exec or CIO, you can’t bounce around haphazardly, Miller warned. You need to know how to get the skills and experience you need to advance when it’s finally time to make a move. “Successful careers don't just happen, they have to be carefully planned,” he said. Also, develop effective networking habits early on in your career. Successful tech leaders develop a vast network of connections that they can tap when they need solutions to problems, referrals or advice.

Never Fly Solo

Taking on more responsibility or work than you can reasonably handle is not only a big career mistake – it’s a recipe for failure. When you get a chance to move into a project lead or supervisory role, learn to trust your teammates; let go and delegate.

Hire People Who Are Smarter Than You

Don’t feel threatened by professionals who have deeper and broader skillsets than you. Many experts believe that leaders who are threatened by strong subordinates tend to be “B and C players.” In other words, you’ll improve your performance and your chances of being promoted by surrounding yourself with smart professionals who have complementary skills and expertise.

Don’t Be Afraid to (Carefully) Challenge the Status Quo

Don’t be afraid to challenge the “this is the way we’ve always done it” mentality. New hires and new managers in particular can shine by suggesting improvements and applying their skills and knowledge in ways that influence products or the work environment. Just be careful how you go about it, so you don’t come across as a know-it-all.

Never Use Technical Jargon

When you finally get a chance to present to the executive team or board of directors, don't blow it by trying to impress them with technical jargon. “You’ll lose them,” Miller said. “Your job is to break down language barriers and to explain things in a way that they will understand.”

Deliver Bad News Early and Often

Hey, it’s tech: things are going to go south every once in a while. Servers go down, software has glitches – but don’t try to solve problems quietly before anyone finds out. “The news needs to come from you and you need to act right away,” Miller advised. “And whatever you do, don’t make excuses. Tell the CEO or board what happened and when it will be fixed. Just make sure that you don’t miss that deadline.”