Want to lead in IT? Find a subject to master.

The former CIO at the IRS and DHS explains why early-career expertise is the key to successful leadership.

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Since I entered the technology field more than 35 years ago, there has been an explosion in new technologies, methodologies and processes. The internet, object-oriented design, agile methods leading to DevOps and DevSecOps, machine learning, and even cybersecurity did not exist in 1984. And new technologies and application options constantly emerge.

The list includes personal devices with sensor-driven assists; "smart" environmental controls, appliances and security systems; advanced software-defined networks; robotics; new media creation and distribution tools; and artificial intelligence, to name just a few. It is a fantastic array that has led to an unprecedented number of new subject areas in technology and various positions or work roles that align with each subject. And each one offers opportunities because it requires qualified innovators, managers and practitioners.

Take cybersecurity as one example. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is a leader in developing cybersecurity standards, including the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. This framework has rapidly become a "de facto" standard for cybersecurity risk management across all industries, well beyond just federal government agencies.

The National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education is an organization within NIST, and it has created a companion workforce framework for cybersecurity. This workforce framework defines seven workforce categories, 33 distinct areas of work and 52 individual work roles. For each work role, the framework includes the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) along with the tasks associated with that role. Organizations can use this framework to create positions by assigning roles to a position, along with the KSAs that align with each role.

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Success in the Technology Field: A Guide for Advancing Your Career by Richard Spires

This article is adapted from "Success in the Technology Field: A Guide for Advancing Your Career" (BookLocker, June 2021).


So given that there are 52 defined roles for cybersecurity alone, you can imagine what it looks like if you map all the IT and related disciplines. There are hundreds of different roles. And when you expand the exercise to incorporate specific product expertise (for example, establishing and administrating an application on a cloud service provider such as Amazon Web Services), the number of distinct roles is undoubtedly in the thousands.

That may seem daunting, but look at it as a vast opportunity. Given this diversity, challenge yourself to become an expert in one or more of these defined roles.

Types of experts

Anytime during your career, but particularly early in your career, you should strive to become an expert. What does this mean? Within the technology field, there are three typical ways to become an expert:

1. Develop the KSAs associated with a specific technology. Most of us with engineering, computer science, mathematics or other science backgrounds are detail-oriented. This orientation serves us well in working with technologies and related technology-based products. So being an expert here involves developing a deep understanding of the underlying technology and, if product-related, the implementation and use of that product for a customer. Some of you may even have the innate talent to advance a subject area through original research or innovation.

2. Develop the KSAs associated with a specific process discipline. The use of modern process disciplines is critical to success for organizations that use technology. These disciplines include project and program management (and their sub-disciplines), agile and DevOps for the development of systems, or ITIL to support the fielding of IT systems and their support in operations. Additionally, in cybersecurity, there are process disciplines related to areas such as risk management, cyber operations and cyber forensics. Like technologies and products, one can become knowledgeable and proficient in using a particular process discipline.

3. Apply technology-based solutions to address specific business challenges. For many in our field, assuming a role that uses a technology-based product, service or process to support a customer is a form of expertise. And this does not apply to just technologists. Some top salespeople are experts at identifying how a specific technology-based product or service can best support a customer. Sometimes, it is the analyst on a project that is the key, the one able to serve as the liaison between a customer and a technical project team. Therefore, expertise is not just about the advancement of technology or a process, but also about the correct application of technology to address business challenges.

After earning my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, I joined SRA International. I was impressed with the knowledge and achievements of those with whom I interviewed and felt drawn to the company. I started in a small organization at SRA that was developing wide-area network optimization algorithms. At that time, it was a crucial discipline, given the relatively modest bandwidth capabilities of the telecommunications systems along with their high cost. It was essential to use mathematical algorithms and simulation techniques to model these systems to maximize the throughput of a wide-area network while minimizing cost. I had to learn wide-area networking, understand the state-of-the-art mathematical algorithms used for network optimization, and learn new languages and tools to develop software programs for supporting projects to optimize our customers' networks. It was demanding and intellectually stimulating work.

Given that so much of what I was learning was new, I was overwhelmed for quite a while. But sometime during my third year on the job, I was feeling more comfortable in my role. By my fifth year, I felt capable in the position, working with our customers, collecting the appropriate data, applying the right software tools and delivering value for our customers. In retrospect, at about that five-year mark, I could have called myself an expert in doing wide-area network design.

That does not mean I developed new algorithms to advance the state of wide-area network design. Instead, I applied the best capabilities available at that time to the challenge of optimizing wide-area networks. Therefore, I view my expertise in network design as the third type described above, supporting the use of technology to address a specific business challenge.

Today, given the advancements in networking technology, there is no need for the types of network designs I specialized in during the 1980s. Yet I don't regret the years I spent early in my career specializing in network design. It taught me much about applying technology to customers' challenges, serving our customers, and managing tasks and then small projects. It started me on a path that enabled me to lead larger IT projects and, eventually, large IT programs.

Striving to become an expert

So challenge yourself to become an expert in a subject in the technology field. It can be in a technology or process discipline or the application of solutions to address business challenges. But how do you go about identifying the subject that's right for you? And once you have identified a subject, what are the steps you should take?

First, identify potential subjects in which you can strive to become an expert. The subjects need to align with your long-term career goals and match well with the KSAs you are looking to develop to help you attain your long-term goals. You should also have excitement and even passion for the subjects you have identified.

But to become an expert is not just about book learning. You must identify subjects in which you can gain real-world experience, using the technology or process day after day in real-world situations. Finally, use your mentors to try out your ideas, and ask for and be open to critical feedback regarding your choices. Do your mentors believe you have innate skills to master a particular technology or discipline? Do they think it will help you address the development of KSAs that support your long-term goals? Do they have other ideas on particular subjects that might be a better fit for you? Mentors can provide significant help as you work through this decision.

With considerable focus and effort, you can become an expert in a chosen subject in a five-year timeframe. That fits well with my recommendation for viewing your career in five-year segments. It also works well with the development of your individual development plan (IDP), which should be a five-year plan.

As you work to develop an IDP that will help you become an expert in a chosen subject, first focus on the need for formal education or training. For example, returning to the cybersecurity roles, perhaps there is a subject in cybersecurity for which you have a passion. Obtaining a master's degree in cybersecurity is an option you might consider. Maybe you could also add a cybersecurity certification or two from organizations such as (ISC)2 or ISACA.

But that, in and of itself, does not qualify you as an expert. You need to develop practical skills, which require several years of hands-on experience. You should identify and join the professional association that best aligns with your efforts to develop your expertise in your chosen subject. It's there that experts in your subject assemble, and with the right involvement, you can relatively quickly get to know a number of them. Look to build your network of existing experts in your subject through a professional association. Ideally, one of those experts can serve as a mentor to help accelerate your development. For instance, such a mentor can point you to the publications (to include books and periodicals) in your subject that are considered most valuable.

How do you know that you have met your objective — that you are an expert in a given subject? Here are four questions to ask yourself:

1. Are you frequently asked for the use of your expertise in a subject? Being asked is an external validation of your knowledge and practical use of your expertise by co-workers and others in the industry.

2. Do you personally know some of the individuals considered to be world-class in your subject? Experts in a subject get to know and communicate with each other. They trade ideas and work together to advance the state of a particular subject. Are you part of this group in your subject area? Do you know who these world-class experts are? Do they know and respect you? Are you adding value as you interact with these other experts?

3. Have you published an article or made public presentations related to your subject? Beyond customer-oriented project work, are you published or have you made presentations at conferences related to your subject? These are validations of how others view you in your field.

4. Have you contributed content to enhance the state of the art in your subject? Such contributions can vary significantly, but examples can include publishing code on "open source" projects, supporting the development of standards or serving on a committee to document best practices in your subject.

It is not a given that you must answer yes to all four questions posed above to think of yourself as an expert. But you can use them as yardsticks to determine whether you are recognized as an expert inside as well as outside your organization.

You may be thinking, especially if you are new in your career, that achieving expert status in five years is unrealistic. You think you are too new, with too much to learn. I understand and can empathize because that is how I felt when first entering work after earning my undergraduate degree. But with technology evolving so rapidly, five years is a relatively long time in our business. With the right focused effort, you can develop your KSAs and address your behaviors to meet such an objective in five years. It will require dedication well beyond a typical 9-to-5 job, but it is possible.

The career benefits

Why is it so important to earn the title of expert, particularly in early to mid-career? It provides you a platform to build upon in three beneficial ways:

  • Developing expertise recognized outside of your organization increases your value in the employer's eyes. In the near term, your value rises, which is then typically reflected in the opportunities you have within your organization (and in your compensation).
  • Your expertise supports developing your professional network. As your reputation is enhanced, it becomes easier to build your network and get introductions to others, both those who work directly in the subject you currently focus on and those who work in related subject areas. This can dramatically help you increase the size and value of your professional network.
  • Finally, developing such expertise provides you with perspective. Once you make an effort to become an expert in a given subject, you understand the effort and the dedication it takes. If you plan, given your career goals, to move into management and hope to become an executive someday, having this perspective is quite valuable. Once in management, you will not be an expert in many of the subject areas you will oversee. Still, you will be able to better identify experts in other subjects and support those who are developing expertise. Your expertise and experience not only give you credibility, they also give you a perspective to assess and support those who work for you.

Technologies and process disciplines are continually evolving. If you begin to manage others and lead organizations, it is possible (even likely) that you will not stay current in your chosen subject. That is okay and expected. But it in no way diminishes the value of having developed expertise in a subject earlier in your career. The benefits outlined above will endure and positively impact your career long after the expertise you acquired early in your career is no longer of value.