Heather Dunlop Jones C.Eng, FIET, CITP, FBCS

IBM Distinguished Engineer, CTO Public Sector, IBM United Kingdom Limited

Heather Dunlop Jones

So why did I decide to work in IT? Well it was a pretty pragmatic decision. At the time I graduated, there were thousands of unemployed graduates, and alongside the heady idea of wanting to go wherever my intellectual curiosity took me, future financial security was definitely something to think about. IT appealed because there seemed to be all sorts of people working in the industry - creative brains as well as technical wizards,  and it looked like an industry that was always going to be in demand - at least as far as I could foresee. So it ticked all the boxes.    

Over 20 years later, it is still the case. The technology is endlessly fascinating and changing, and carefully chosen IT skills give you a relatively secure and relatively lucrative career. The shortage of IT skills is well known, and is not likely to diminish in the foreseeable future. IT research and development continues to generate staggering advances - e.g. the current developments in cognitive computing and natural language processing are mind-blowing. The commercial field is sufficiently broad that if you get a grounding in what IT can do for a business - what solutions the technology enables, how it enables, what the risks and benefits are, you are then equipped with a tool that's useful for  every functional department in most organisations - which is a big market for your skills. As well as continuing in pure technical IT work, there is the option to move in to more application or business-focused IT work - consulting, business analysis, specialist solution work, service delivery. As well as entry-level developer roles, working as an analyst on an IT help desk is an interesting example that has been the entry point to commercial IT for many: you get to know how every department uses IT (and how dependent they are on it when it goes wrong)  - it's a window on what IT delivers. The only pre-requisite I would say is that you need an affinity for numerate and analytical disciplines.  

I really like having contact with IT development labs. Seeing how the scientists work is hugely interesting, as well as impressive. Every time I have visited IBM's labs, I leave thinking 'how on earth did they come up with that?' When I get back to the office, or am working with customers, it's good to have some insight into what went in to designing a product I'm working with, and it's always good to know that I can pick up the phone or message the developer or scientist in the lab if there's a detailed question, or with feedback that might be useful.      

A couple of tips:

  1. Get a mentor - or several. Most successful business people have had a great mentor at some point in the road, and it's no different in IT. There are times when a mentor can nudge you  in a direction you wouldn't have otherwise considered that can turn out to be pivotal, or give you enough confidence to 'do it anyway' - helping you to operate just out of your comfort zone for long enough to make a career change. Finding good mentors can be a matter of luck; I don't have mentors continuously, and not all mentoring relationships have been especially effective, but it only takes one or two nuggets of gold advice from a mentor to make it worthwhile. Sometimes it is a one-off conversation that has been significant. 
  2. Think hard but be realistic about IT Services work if it involves mobility - I mean the type of work where you move from project to project, which can involve working away from home for weeks or months at a time. This kind of work can be really exciting, and builds experience very fast. In fact in most supplier organisations, the big and challenging programmes where you develop cutting-edge skills and really get to understand about IT delivery are almost exclusively to be found in Services parts of the organisations. Often the technical leaders in these organisations are either from the Services divisions, or have passed through them at some point in their career, so it can be a really important part of your CV. Being mobile can also be fun and exciting, but there are times in your life when it just conflicts too much with your personal life. So if you want to become a technical leader in this sense, plan ahead for when and how you are going to fit in this kind of experience.  

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