Main image of article Forging a Career Path When the Route Is Unclear
Up-and-coming companies seldom offer well-defined career paths that guide IT professionals from one position to the next. Enterprising employees are instead expected to identify an emerging role or need and pilot themselves to the next career opportunity. “You have to know where the company and your particular niche is headed to steer your own IT career,” said Katy Piotrowski, CEO of Career Solutions Group, a career planning firm based in Fort Collins, Colo. “The key is finding an opportunity that leverages your strengths in a way that benefits both you and the company.” A decade ago, for example, no one had even heard of a UI designer, data scientist or cloud-services specialist—and now they’re mainstream jobs, even vital ones. Data scientists, for example, are tasked with gleaning the insights that can mean the difference between a company's survival or wholesale destruction. Entering a new field, or innovating on an existing one, will give you an upper hand over potential rivals in your company and industry. But plotting a career path when the route is unclear is often easier said than done.

Get Out in Front

Stay abreast of emerging technologies (as well as economic, regulatory and competitive changes) that may impact your company over the next few years. Position yourself as a mover and shaker by discussing these events with your boss. “Once you’ve outlined the need, propose a new position or kick around some possible roles,” Piotrowski said. “You don’t have to be a job hunter to reap the benefits of an exploratory interview. They’re also an effective tool for current employees who want to gather information about a possible career change.” Even if your boss isn’t ready to act on a trend, planting seeds with decision-makers can result in a new opportunity down the road. Plus, it positions you as a doer and innovator instead of someone who’s fixated on titles and promotions. Your knowledge of new privacy and security regulations, for instance, could have a massive impact on the fortunes (and legal compliance) of your company, especially if you take the initiative to bend projects toward compliance. “Don’t wait until the perfect job description pops up, because by that time, they already know who they want to hire,” Piotrowski added. “Take the initiative by showing interest and proactively solving problems so executives will give you a shot when the time is right.”

Try the Sampler Platter

If making a full-blown transition to a new and better role seems risky, take small steps by volunteering to attend conferences, learn new skills, oversee small projects or tackle stretch assignments. These so-called “career change experiments” can help you refine the job description, close skill gaps, define deliverables and confirm the mutual benefits and interest in creating a new position. Experienced trailblazers often dip their toes in the water before they take the plunge. “Testing the waters benefits both parties,” Piotrowski said. “I like the idea of trying out a role for three months. It makes it a lot easier to return to your old position if things don’t work out and a lot easier for your boss to say yes. In the meantime, you’re acquiring valuable skills and experience.”

Learn From Other Trailblazers

No two career paths are the same. You can learn a great deal by studying the actions and routes of those who’ve carved out new roles for themselves, especially within your own company. Networking with first movers who are already dabbling with a new technology or niche can bolster your planning efforts. For instance, a mentor can help you identify emerging problems and opportunities, plot a career path and develop a pitch that will resonate with your boss. He or she can also help you pinpoint the skills and expertise necessary to pursue your next position. (Once you advance, you can return the favor by becoming a mentor yourself.) “Blending outside information with your existing technical knowledge and interests is the secret to making a custom tailored career plan,” Piotrowski said. “It’s not about following a well-trodden path, you have the luxury of setting your own course when the route isn’t defined.”