When IT pros think "mistake," they usually think in technical terms: The bugs in your code, the "whoops" moments in a production environment, the obvious-in-hindsight security hole -- these things can and do happen. But technology mistakes, unless they're of the catastrophic, time-to-find-a-new-gig variety, are usually pretty straightforward. Recognize the error, fix it, learn from it, and move on.
The more common symptoms of career self-sabotage, according to engineer-turned-recruiter Steve Levy, all lead back to a simple diagnosis: You.
Levy, who's head of global recruiting at the open source video platform Kalturaand helps moderate the Open Mic Career Chat on Twitter, is fond of noting that people don't put their humanity -- and all the good, bad, and downright ugly tendencies that come with it -- on hold when they arrive in the office. People remain people, and plenty of career pitfalls are created by that simple fact. Avoiding them is often an exercise in being honest with yourself, even when it's an unpleasant task. The core problem, according to Levy: The requisite self-awareness and self-honesty are often lacking in the IT pro tookit.
"It's the things that IT folks, technical folks, typically don't want to address," Levy said in an interview. "But these things that are really relationship-focused are the ones that will make or break your career."
Let's look at six potentially major mistakes IT pros should avoid and consider some fix-it strategies if the damage, even when it appears minimal, has already been done.
1. You have no filter.
You've heard the World War II-era saying: "Loose lips sink ships." In today's era, where multitasking -- or maybe the more accurate term is overtasking -- is the norm and the average IT pro might have a phone call, their email inbox, instant messaging, and social media all going simultaneously across at least two (and probably more) screens, loose lips sink careers. You need to be thoughtful and conscientious about what you're saying, writing, tweeting, texting, posting, and so forth -- and where you're doing it. Levy points out the too-long list of corporate Twitter fiascoes caused either by bad judgment or avoidable error, such as someone with multiple social profiles accidentally posting to the wrong one and embarrassing themselves and their employer as a result.
Levy invoked another adage, this one courtesy of carpenters, by way of advice for the foot-in-mouth crowd: Measure twice, cut once. This comes in especially handy any time human emotions run even a degree or two higher than when, say, you're sound asleep.
"The rule I use is: The first thing you want to send? Don't send it. The second thing you want to send? Don't send it," Levy said. "Usually, the third thought is probably spot on -- and won't get you [in trouble]." A related reminder for the loose-lipped: "The 'Reply All' button is not your friend," Levy said.
If you've already stuffed a foot into that loud, giant mouth, the best repair strategy is usually to apologize privately and appropriately. Then stop talking for a while.
"If [you're in] a foot-in-mouth situation, the last thing you want to do is keep talking," Levy said. "It's usually because you're talking too much."
2. You're a bit too chummy.
Be friendly, be polite, be kind -- they're all fine attributes that, let's face it, the world could use more of. But beware of becoming too "buddy-buddy" with people in the office. Like a lack of filter, acting like a friend rather than a colleague around the wrong person can give the wrong impression.
"There is a pecking order in every organization, and you need to know what it is," Levy. Know who you're communicating with and, when in doubt, button up. Cracking even an innocuous joke in front of someone who doesn't want to banter in the office, for example, is high-risk and low-reward.
"It's frightening how people [think]: 'OK, I got a job. Now I'm one of the crew," Levy said.
3. You don't do what you say.
While applicable across age groups, this one might be especially important for recent graduates and other early career IT pros. "You have to follow through," Levy said. He acknowledged it sounds obvious, yet is amazed how often it's an issue. Over-promising, procrastinating, or just plain punting on projects and job responsibilities will catch up to you. While developers and other roles might occasionally go through "crunch" periods before a launch or major release, the college-style cram sessions aren't a good long-term strategy for getting your job done. "Cramming is for school; planning is for professionals," Levy said.
4. You're not plugged in.
How do you plan in a business world where everything seems to change every six months, if not sooner? You need to stay plugged into your industry. Read widely, join professional groups, and attend industry conferences and events. No budget for the latter? Even just reading the presentation titles at relevant conferences and events should give you a clue as to what's going and where you and your employer might be missing the boat. Levy also notes that social media is a boon for ensuring your knowledge doesn't lag behind.
"Let's say you're doing stuff with PHP. You can follow a lot of PHP know-it-alls" on social media, Levy noted. PHP not relevant to you? Substitute the technology or keyword that is; odds are there are people discussing it at length on social and community sites. Creating Twitter lists, joining LinkedIn Groups, engaging with IT communities online - all of the above can help you keep the big picture in sharp focus.
5. You make too many assumptions.
Levy traces most bad employer-employee break-ups to three reasons. The first is, simply, the person's not cut out for the job. The next two, though, fall under the banner of correctable career missteps: Relying too much on assumptions and not getting along with your manager. Let's look at each in turn.
In good times and bad, assumptions not grounded in concrete information can be a killer. Yet people do it regularly on the job. "You make assumptions as to what the problems are and what the deliverables are," Levy said. "In business, you should never have to assume when you can ask a question of somebody... If there's even a hint of uncertainty as to what a boss wants, what a customer wants, what a user wants, you have a mouth -- use it."
Levy added: "It's frightening how folks don't ask questions. [When problems arise,] they just assume things will magically get better."
6. You don't get along with your boss.
It seems virtually everyone's who's been in the working world a while has a bad-boss horror story. Bad bosses are real and they can wreak havoc on your professional life. But Levy reminds us that challenging working relationships are rarely one person's fault; you're probably at least a part of the dysfunction.
"The important thing to do is to recognize what you're doing first," Levy said. Self-honesty isn't easy, but it's critical if you want things to improve. Make a list of areas where you think you may be contributing to the negative relationship and how they might improve. Then, Levy advised meeting with your manager to discuss, without pointing fingers. Acknowledge that you don't think things are going as well as they could or should be, say that you've been considering ways in which you're contributing to the situation, and ask questions about how it can be improved going forward.
"When you pose it to the person - 'what do you think of this? Am I right or wrong?' - The manager is going to respond in one of two ways. They're either going to go: 'Well, thank you for bringing this up.' And from that point forward the relationship's going to be that much better," Levy said. The other response: "They're just a [jerk]. It's not going to change them, and it is the manager and you just might not be compatible with them. So then you have choice. You can't change everybody."
Even if you get the latter response, you've still accomplished something: You know you've indeed got a bad boss and that it's not a "you" problem, and you're not relying on speculation or assumptions to reach that conclusion. And there's a good chance you'll get a much more positive response. "If you talk to your boss like a human being, more often than not you'll get the answer you're looking for," Levy said.
Again, this requires IT pros to be able to tell themselves the truth. If you think you're perfect, sorry to spoil the fun: You're not. Levy even readily acknowledged that many IT pros might see the "touchy-feely stuff" as a load of bunk, but he's quick with the rebuttal: "It ain't."
"I feel bad for the person who can't look inward, I really do," Levy added. "The person who can't look inward and confront their issues is a person who will never be great."