10 ways to recession-proof your IT career

With inflation and other global factors increasing the risk of recession, savvy IT pros are reconsidering their approaches to work to ensure career prospects in uncertain economic times.

By Paul Heltzel

CIO. May 2, 2022 3:00 AM PDT

Tech leaders are known for planning ahead, and many are watching the state of the economy with interest, as inflation is on the rise, coupled with pandemic-related supply shortages and other global factors that increase the risk of a recession. The same forward-thinking approaches that help tech companies adapt — when faced with other forms of disruption — can also be applied to your career.

There are steps you can take to protect and advance your career in worrisome economic times, including developing new skills and changing old habits. Progressive companies stay ahead of the curve by looking ahead, and you can do the same by making good use of your time and seeking new opportunities.

Here’s a look at 10 ways you can help protect your career prospects in uncertain economic times.

Keep your blade sharp

When facing a recession, Scott Caschette, CIO of Schellman and Co., advises an approach akin to investing in a downturn by looking for emerging opportunities for growth.

“The trick is predicting which way the sector shift is going to go,” Caschette says. “Look for, or better yet, predict which large companies will need IT skills on the inverse side of economic downturn. Chances are they will be looking for talent.”

Here, Caschette suggests making use of any job-related data you can find. “A trick I learned a while back was to search all of the staffing and recruiting websites and aggregate the data for the most recurring job opening types,” he says. “It will establish up-to-the-minute skills trends for you to understand the tech opportunities in your area.”

Be proactive

Now is the time to make yourself visible and build relationships — before you need them, says Tommy Weir, a CEO consultant, whose firm Enaible uses AI to offer leaders advice on team productivity.

“It can be tempting to sit back and be responsive, but this puts the control of interaction in others’ hands,” Weir says. “I urge tech pros to offer examples on the importance of building relationships with bosses and co-workers outside of the office, and how they’ve done this in previous jobs. Be proactive, be seen, and get known. After all, organizations are social. And whether you like it or not, people that are liked get attention.”

Prepare for emerging challenges 

Seek out online certifications to bolster your skills, especially if your company offers in-house training, says Akhilesh Agarwal, senior vice president of global business partner technology solutions at APEX Analytix. And he suggests focusing on cybersecurity.

“It’s worth noting that the rate of cyberattacks increased significantly during the pandemic, with the FBI reporting a 200-300% increase in cybercrime complaints,” Agarwal says. “This represents an immediate threat to IT departments and their companies.”

Because of this, Agarwal recommends developing cybersecurity skills to both stay relevant in your current role and prepare for future opportunities. “Now more than ever, IT professionals need to focus on learning and development opportunities to prepare for the potential fallout of the current crisis,” he says.

Stay on top of your resume and your network

Ken n, master instructor at Cybrary, suggests continually updating your resume instead of racing to polish it after things go south. Keeping it current will ensure you don’t forget important new skills you’ve picked up along the way. Likewise, Underhill stresses knowing the job market before you need it.

“It’s important to stay abreast of other job openings for a few reasons,” he says. “One is that you can get a better gauge of where your salary compares to similar roles at similar companies, which helps during negotiations for a raise. The other reason is that you never know if there is another role that might be a better fit for you unless you search for it.”

Thomas Phelps, CIO at Laserfiche, adds that building your network while you’re still employed will give you a deep bench of colleagues who can attest to your ability to solve business problems.

“These days, many people get connected to a new opportunity through their network — and not a resume,” he says. “Volunteer for a nonprofit IT leadership organization, like the Society for Information Management, and create a compelling online presence that reflects your personal brand.”

Allen Nieman, vice president of product management of Prescryptive Health, says the best piece of advice he ever received for future-proofing a technology career is to constantly build relationships.

“A good relationship with someone can not only provide future opportunity,” Nieman says, “but it can also open both seen and unseen doors and help overcome obstacles.”

Rightsize your workload

Pulling from his own experience, Nieman says his best career move was also a surprising one: He decided to do less, a decision that helped him prioritize more important tasks, which led to important gains.

“Do fewer things,” he suggests, “and then to do those things better. From a career perspective, that means putting almost zero energy into things you are not good or talented at, beyond what might be a basic level of competency. To achieve outsized returns in your career, put your energy into the few things you are inherently talented and good at. Triple-down on those things and do them exceptionally well and you’ve dramatically improved the chances for good outcomes to follow.”

Enter the multiverse

Brian Keare, CIO at Incorta, says you should entertain multiple attractive career possibilities rather than seizing on the first one that appeals to you.

“This advice has caused me to expand my personal and professional horizons whenever I make an important decision,” Keare says. “It has opened up a mindset prompting me to explore whether it is time for reinvention or reengineering, rather than just continuing down the same path. It has motivated me to understand my company’s competitive landscape, considering the best practices that my competitors may be employing as a possible option for me to throw in the mix.

“Following this advice always leads to better outcomes, helps me stay at the top of my game, and maximizes my ability to be future proof,” Keare adds.

Focus on outcomes, not tools

Keare says tech veterans often get enamored with cutting-edge technology, but that focus can be too narrow. Tools need to be accompanied by people who understand how to put an effective process in place that delivers positive business outcomes.

“Going deep and becoming a true expert in an area is obviously good,” he says. “But periodically ask yourself if you are missing the forest for the trees. Translate what you are doing into its tangible impacts for the rest of the company. Force yourself to think strategically about how your efforts can turbocharge the organization — you will be on your way to becoming a much more effective IT leader.”

Be adaptable

Romain Lerallut, vice president and head of Criteo AI Lab, learned an important career lesson when, after serving as a team lead, he wanted to land a software development job at a well-known tech company but was told he wouldn’t make the cut on his tech skills alone.

“It was a pretty hard blow to me, and for a while, I questioned a lot of my abilities and my self-worth,” Lerallut says. “But then I realized that my path was not on the pure engineering side and that they had totally discarded my leadership and managerial abilities in their evaluation.”

So Lerallut pivoted his job search to seek a more hybrid technical leadership role. “In interviews for another company, I made it very clear that I was looking for a position combining the two, that I had the technical skills to do the job but, more importantly, that I was bringing other skills to the table,” he says.

He got the job and still has that position at his current company: “My advice is to first and foremost do an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. Then learn how to present yourself effectively, highlight what it is you do well, and where you want to grow.”

Develop a habit for continuous learning

“Now more than ever, IT professionals need to focus on learning and development opportunities,” says APEX’s Agarwal, and Ashok Balakrishnan, CTO at Skillshare, agrees.

“We’re living in a time where continuous lifelong learning has become extremely accessible thanks to subscription-based and free services,” he says. “The barriers to entry are very low and resources are in plentiful supply for individuals to invest in skills that will pay off down the road.”

The pandemic forced many organizations to rethink how emerging and near-future technology will impact and transform their business. While Balakrishnan sees AI, for example, as an important technology to key in on for the future, how the pandemic will affect the marketplace for years to come is still unknown. As a result, he suggests modeling a few different versions of your company, department, and role.

“Beat the system by being ahead,” he says. “On a zoomed-out scale, think big, think outside the box, and figure out how you can lead a more impactful life. This may open new doors and plans for you, too.”

Be curious 

Santosh Keshavan, CIO at Voya Financial, says the best advice he received from a mentor was to stay relevant. That means putting yourself at the center of the action, doing the work, and most importantly, staying curious, he says.

“Taking on risk, new assignments, and stretching your abilities will help you learn and grow through experimentation,” Keshavan says. “That breadth of experience will allow you to remain relevant in a highly dynamic field.”

Keshavan urges his own team to follow that path.

“Encourage endless curiosity, experimentation, and expression of diverse opinions — and then give them space to lead and grow. Their success will be your greatest success. This may be cliché, but it is also sound advice that has been proven to be highly effective.”

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