How to Become an IT Director: Tips from the Top
When it comes to climbing the corporate ladder in business, education, experience and certifications are only the beginning.
Hoping to lead - rather than follow - orders some day? Join the club. Plenty of IT pros aspire to executive jobs, but only a few succeed at being promoted to the top. So how can you make it happen?
That might help.
But there’s something that’s more important than all that, and you won’t find it in a book. Bill McGloine, IT Director at Korg USA, Inc., a creator and distributor of electronic musical equipment, calls it "brute force." And he would know. When he started working at Korg in 1996, he had no college degree, no credentials and was shipping boxes in the company’s distribution center. By 2009, he was heading up Korg’s IT department, which oversees all the traditional IT services and creates custom software for Korg.com. So how did he get there? Here are his tips for climbing the corporate ladder in business IT.
Follow Your Passion
You might be tempted to play it cool, but the simple truth is that nothing makes you stand out more than real enthusiasm for your work and your company. That doesn’t necessarily mean a passion for technology and IT. In fact, it might mean a passion for your employer's core business. In McGloine’s case, it’s that kind of passion that brought him to Korg in the first place - and what’s kept him there for the better part of two decades.
"I started working for Korg USA in 1996," McGloine said. "I would have taken any job they offered. I was 24 years old and a musician, so it meant a lot to me to work for a company that made musical instruments."
These days, McGloine manages an IT department where just about everyone plays an instrument. That isn’t a coincidence; it’s confluence. These days, every business imaginable needs IT personnel, so consider seeking out a company that does something you care about. When it comes to developing the innovation and work ethic required to make it to a top IT job, nothing compares to having a sincere interest in what you do.
You can’t climb the ladder in just any company. Not everyone is open to it or provides the support to make it happen. At Korg, McGloine found a mentor in the head of IT.
"We became close friends, and I’d often punch out at the end of my work day and stop by to learn from him," McGloine said.
Three years later, McGloine had an entry-level position in the IT department and was headed back to college for a degree in business and technology from the State University of New York (SUNY) - on the company’s tab.
"The company offered to pay for school. I knew that would open a lot of doorways and show the executive management that I was dedicated to the company and was trying to advance my career," McGloine said. (Many IT pros get in on degrees and certifications later on - and some even land great jobs without a related degree or any certifications at all. You can read more about this in How I Got An IT Job Without a Tech Background.)
Understand the Company
Certifications are a great feather in your cap, but there’s one very specialized skill that will really help you get ahead: Understanding how the company operates and how to apply technology to that.
"Just knowing how Windows works is not a specialized skill. What is specialized is the ability to see process problems," McGloine said. (And this doesn’t just apply to aspiring IT directors: Data scientist Jake Porway said the same thing about becoming a data scientist here.)
Become a Problem Solver
If you’ve been in the business for a while, you probably already know that there’s a lot more to tech than simply technology. In reality, technology, innovation and cool doodads take a back seat to the bottom line. As an IT director, your company won’t just expect you to manage the IT department or build cool software, but to do it in a way that benefits the company by boosting its business, improving efficiency or reducing costs. Those aren’t tech problems; they’re business problems. And, says McGloine, it’s up to the IT director to solve them with technology.
Don’t Rely on Technology
Get to know the company. Check. Use technology to solve its problems. Check.
OK, but here’s where things get a little trickier, because McGloine says that IT directors also need to avoid relying on technology.
Huh? But isn’t technology the point of IT?
Well, it depends on how you look at it.
"There are so many corners in IT, but if you’re going to be in business IT, you have to have a passion for refining business processes and finding better ways to do things," McGloine says. "That means not always leaning on technology, but stepping outside technology and determining the best process."
Because McGloine has worked in several areas of the company, he understands the nuts and bolts of how it runs.
"I know everything from what it takes to ship boxes, send orders, answer phones...you name it," McGloine said. "That definitely helps me to develop the right technology and software to solve those problems. Our shipping system, for example, is completely custom written. My working in the warehouse all those years helped me know what to do to make things more efficient."
Apply Brute Force
Climbing the corporate ladder looks easy enough in print, but behind the scenes, it’s a whirlwind of late nights, early mornings and countless hours learning and developing new skills. This is what McGloine calls "brute force," and he considers it a key ingredient to his success.
"If you don’t love it, it’s a bad career," McGloine said. "It changes so fast, so you’re constantly staying up late, learning new things. If you don’t, you’ll fall behind."
The IT Director’s Chair
This is just one person’s path to an executive position in IT. There are many others. But there are a few key ingredients to getting to the top that are common to every career story: interest, innovation, determination and, perhaps most importantly, solutions. Education, certifications and experience still hold weight, but when it comes to securing a top job, you’ll need to prove to your company that you are not only qualified for the job, but also that you can make an impact.