Growth requires more than doing a great job in the office. It means making time for professional development.

By Sue Hildreth | July 2008

If you're like most IT professionals you expect to grow in your career, whether that means moving up the management ladder, starting your own business, or achieving higher levels of technical capability. But growth requires more than doing a great job in the office. It means making time for professional development - evening classes in service management or SOA architecture, earning the right certifications, attending conferences, networking and keeping abreast of the latest books from IT and management experts.

So, how do you do all of that while you're putting in extra hours troubleshooting problems in the data center or pushing out a new product release? We all know IT jobs are rarely 9 to 5. That's the conundrum that has stalled many an ambitious techie's career development plans.

So what do you do? Here's advice from IT career experts:

Keep Perspective

The first step is to recognize you probably can't get it all done. "You have to keep perspective," says Michael Cardinal, who's worked in IT and trains for ITSM Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Yes, there are deadlines for projects, but is anybody going to die if something doesn't get done right away? Probably not."

Set Short-Term Goals

Decide on a goal for how may career development opportunities you want to get each year, suggests Cardinal. An "opportunity" could mean reading a hot new management book, attending a key conference, or taking a class toward an industry certification. He recommends no less than three, and no more than five or six, such goals per year.

Draft a Ten-Year Plan

Go beyond yearly goal-setting and craft a plan for what you want your career and private life to be like in ten years. John McKee, a Los Angeles-based career coach, says IT professionals often neglect long-term planning, especially in terms of social and family goals. "I ask them to be fairly specific. What type of job do you want to be in, where do you want to live? I then ask them to list what they have to do to achieve that and how much time it will take. In some cases they may say, 'This is crazy, I can't do all that.' So they'll step back and focus on the most important aspects."

Segment Your Time

Don't mix career development time with job time or family time. That's often harder to do than it sounds.

"IT people don't compartmentalize well. They love what they do and they often let it flow into other compartments of their life," observes Susan Healthfield, a human resources management consultant and owner of Heathfield Consulting Associates in Williamston, Mich. "You need to be able to say, 'This is family time, not time for me to be on the computer.'"

Cardinal agrees. "If you need to study, set aside two hours for it, and don¿t go over those two hours. Then put the book down."

He also advises not rushing back to work at the end of a class, even if you feel you should. "You just spent a whole day in class absorbing material. Don't try to go back to the office to finish up work," says Cardinal. "If your company and you have committed to take the class, then take it, and be present for it and let co-workers take up the slack for you at work."

Take 'Research' Breaks on the Job

While you don't want to mix work and career development, it's a good idea to invest a few minutes here and there to read up on an interesting new product or chat with a co-worker about a programming technique you want to learn. That keeps your mind fresh and lets you learn on the job.

Keep a Journal.

Cardinal recommends carrying a journal in which you can write down new ideas or information you pick up during the day. Doing so helps him remember the information better, and later he may use such notes to draft a white paper on a new technology or technique. You can also turn notes into entries on a blog, if you maintain one.

Such self-publishing is legitimate career development, Heathfield believes. "It serves as professional development, and also provides a form of downtime from work in that you should be writing about something of interest to you, things you want the IT world to hear about," he says.

Include Family Priorities

One sure way wind up unhappy is to let it consume every minute of your time. Heathfield, Cardinal and McKee all recommend planning time for family or social activities - and not treating them as expendable.

"Too many IT professionals make career plans, and then assume the rest of their lives will just fall into place," says McKee. "They often wind up treating the non-work aspects of life as secondary, and find themselves unhappy later on."

Sue Hildreth is a freelance business and IT writer based in Waltham, Mass.