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IT Engineer Career Advice: Be The Unicorn

When I recently announced on Twitter that I had been promoted to senior network engineer, a follower asked me to name one thing I did that helped me move up in the IT world. Even with a 140-character limit, I couldn't narrow it down to one thing. But I can reduce it down to three steps I believe are critical to success in any field, especially for those working through the IT ranks.

1. Run With Things And Make Magic

When I first started in IT, I used to be terrified when given assignments involving technology I knew very little about. Usually such projects were accompanied by hazy objectives and deadlines crafted by what I assume were amateur comedians, given their ridiculous nature. The mark of a good engineer, however, is taking vague and murky mandates and making magic happen: Yes, what I am saying is you need to be the unicorn. Your boss is looking for someone who can filter through all the hype, find the landmines in a proposed operation, and guide him/her through unfamiliar territory.

Does this mean you have all the answers? No. It means you know how, who, and where to get answers from. It means you have the courage to point out flaws in proposed plans, the flexibility to work with others to resolve issues, and most of all, the communication skills that don’t leave your boss or team hanging in the wind when trouble comes along. And trouble always comes along.

2. Carry Your Own Weight

Never be that guy that does a half-baked job. Nobody likes that guy, nobody likes cleaning up after that guy, and for the record, nobody likes being on a team with that guy. IT requires personal accountability; the blame game might get you off the hook for a moment, but if you don’t carry your own weight, someone’s going to notice. Co-workers may cover you for a bit, but any decent manager will see through this farce in a heartbeat.

Managers, take note: If you are letting someone on your team get away with this behavior, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot. The resulting morale problems and poor work quality will be just the tip of the iceberg.

[Find out two key steps that can help make the difference between a short, unhappy stint and a long, successful career in networking in "Advice To New Network Engineers."]

3. Continuously Add To Your Skill Set

IT is the industry of change. What’s commonplace today is legacy gear in a New York minute; you’ve got to keep up. Blogs, podcasts, webinars, whitepapers -- all of these are tools that facilitate keeping pace with the rapid flux of technology. Now, do you need to be an expert in everything? Absolutely not. There is far too much information out there to be the master of all things IT, but the landscape is constantly morphing and you need to have an idea of what general shape it is taking.

As a leader, you will be making decisions that will affect your organization five, 10, and 15 years down the road. To ensure your choices are educated ones, you need to connect with people in your area of expertise, train for certification exams, read books and blog posts, and play with whatever gear you can get your hands on. Bottom line: If you don’t love learning, you are in the wrong field.

So if you want to succeed in IT, here's my advice: Be that rare, magical creature -- an engineer with an ever-expanding knowledge base, one that aspires to quality work and leads by taking responsibility. I guarantee that’s what quality managers are on the lookout for in IT.