Today, Keith Townsend is a highly sought-after consultant, blogger, speaker, writer, and strategist with extensive expertise working with IT infrastructure. But once upon a time, IT seemed like a "dream job" to Townsend. He was willing to work the night shift on the help desk in order to make that dream a reality.
During his 20-year career, he has added numerous certifications to his resume, earned his master's degree in IT project management and relied on valuable advice from mentors to help him get to the place where he is today. Network Computing recently spoke with Townsend, Interop ITX infrastructure track chair, to get his perspective on what it takes to build a career in IT today.
NWC: Tell me a little about your current job role.
Keith Townsend: Now I'm running my own IT strategy and content marketing firm, the CTO Advisor. I'm focused on helping people figure out their long-term IT infrastructure strategy and also creating custom content for IT managers and consumers.
NWC: How did you first get started in IT?
KT: My first job was actually working the help desk at a small independent software vendor (ISV) that provided futures data to futures traders. I worked the third shift as a help-desk specialist. I was an IT power user back then and thought I could do IT for a living. I kept applying for jobs as a help-desk specialist and finally broke through. I had to work a third shift, but it was a great experience.
NWC: What drew you to IT?
KT: Technology and programming had always been a hobby of mine since I was a kid. I had a passion for wanting to do my hobby as a career. It's always been a dream -- it's funny to say it now -- but it's a dream to work in IT. It's my dream job [chuckles].
NWC: Where did your career take you from there?
KT: I picked up a few certifications. That led me to a network administrator/server administrator job at a large Fortune 500 company at the time -- the Tribune Company -- and I spent time in that role for a few years.
NWC: What steps have you taken that helped your career the most?
Certifications were great mechanisms to improve my technical capability. It provided some rigor and focus as to what to study and how to study. That helped perfect my practice.
But early on, I discovered that soft skills were probably the biggest limiter in my career versus anything else. It got to a point where the technology part was fairly easy. There's a road map to getting better in technology. Developing the soft skills was a combination of developing mentorship relationships, which was probably number one, and number two, taking the advice of mentors, going back to school, and getting an advanced degree in a diverse set of studies.
NWC: What do you think are the most exciting things happening in IT right now?
KT: Everything is blowing up! The most exciting thing is the democratization of technology. Cloud has completely changed the business landscape and how companies can leverage technology to innovate. I don't mean innovation in terms of faster networks or faster servers or the ability to email more; it's the ability to use what had been high-end technologies such as CRM or ERP to compete with other businesses. A great example is Salesforce.com. My wife had a business idea the other day that would be impossible to build from the ground up, unless I used Salesforce. That digital disruption has created an avalanche of change in our industry, and that is extremely exciting.
NWC: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in his or her IT career?
KT: This may sound odd, but my advice would be, "Don't focus on the technology." Technology is important; however, technology is a tool. It is a business tool. In my opinion, you can't start a technology career today without first developing an understanding of business and the purpose of that technology. You want to make sure you enter a field of technology that adds value at the end of the day. If you don't, your career will probably be short-lived as enterprises and organizations figure out how to outsource non-critical parts of their operations. So if you want to have a career in IT long-term, understand the business value of IT first. Then go on to develop skills in technologies that add value.