There are seemingly limitless career possibilities on the path to an exciting career in Information Technology. However, knowing where to start, and more specifically where to start with little or no experience, can seem insurmountable to people just starting out with hopes of one day developing the next great mobile application or supporting a company’s business enterprise. There may be plenty of entry level jobs that allow you to get the exposure to technology you’re seeking; the question is: how do you truly break into the world of IT and launch a career?
We all know the conundrum of starting your career: It’s hard to get a job with no experience—but how do you get experience without a job? Now, let’s assume you figured this out; the next challenge can prove as confounding: How do you move from an entry-level position to a mid-level role where you can demonstrate your skills and make a real impact for your employer? And then how do you continue to earn your way up to a more senior role?
When others are satisfied plodding along, putting their time in—what do ambitious tech leaders-in-the-making do to get ahead?
As a technology solutions company that prizes talent and drive, SPR Consulting seeks to foster the growth of up-and-comers through catalytic work environments and opportunities. To illustrate the insights and strategies that have been proven time and time again to accelerate tech careers, we feature two SPR Consulting team members with enviable professional trajectories.
Specifically, we showcase the habits that turned into hallmarks of their rapid ascents in their own words. The profiles reveal a slew of strategies both subtle and overt that earned them recognition for their skills and ambition over a short but productive tenure with SPR Consulting. Both continue to contribute – and grow – as part of our team today.
You will also find our regular sections on job openings, events and blogs geared to keep IT professionals in the loop. There’s a lot of good information for you in this issue of Looped In, and for even more insight, view past issues here.
SPR Consulting is known for offering rapid-growth opportunities. Case in point: When Melissa McElroy began with SPR Consulting, she focused on being the liaison between development teams and the client and developing branding to update the look of client websites. In just four years, she has become the principal architect on one of the company’s largest SharePoint client accounts. As a User Experience and Social Evangelist as well as Senior Manager, she also now boasts remarkable UX and social media skills and licenses from Human Factors in both usability and user experience.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m designing an intranet for a client in downtown Chicago who is migrating from LiveLink to SharePoint 2013. In addition to migrating their documents, we are designing a new information and site architecture to allow them to better leverage the features of SharePoint.
I am also finishing up a project that surfaces SAP and marketing data in SharePoint 2013 to provide a product catalog search for a horticultural company. I am also upgrading their intranet from 2010 and 2013 and building a new home page, business center page, and sales portal as the first phase of that project. I have another client in the process of defining how their software systems help them run their business better; we are extracting transactional data from SharePoint Online to assist them with that initiative.
How does your current experiences compare to your first job with SPR Consulting?
I started as a SharePoint admin, just figuring things out and asking questions. I became an expert in branding and search; I got training in software architecture and design. Now others come to me for answers.
What is the smartest thing you have done to advance your career?
I saw an area of the company that needed change and took it on. I helped improve how design work was being done to better keep up with the client needs. In the process, I made myself an expert in that niche. I used what I learned to create the standards we use today.
What has been your biggest challenge?
My skills started to plateau in a project at one point and I was no longer challenged. I asked for movement within the company; I wanted to be on projects where I could get some new learning opportunities and also some variance in my work and client exposure. SPR Consulting really does have an open door policy, they listened to what I was asking for. They really support you in trying out a new subject area, so you can learn something new. They value happy employees.
What advice can you offer for moving up from entry-level to mid-level?
The number one thing I tell new people is to ask questions and leverage the expertise of those around you who have been around the block. I also advise them to keep up on trends in tech, and not to fall behind on new approaches to solving problems. It’s also a great idea to get involved in user groups and community activities, like our SharePoint group Share-A-Pint and UX group UXPA Chicago.
What questions should you ask a recruiter if advancement matters to you?
How big is the company? Don’t be a number. Small to medium size is good for working with a close team of people who have expertise in a variety of areas. You want to make your name known and be able to establish a niche and contribute your skills in a way that will be recognized. Also, ask about training and conferences. What kind of time and coverage do they offer for you to stay knowledgeable and keep a presence in the community?
How do you spend your time when you are not working?
I love to cook and try out new recipes, we had a huge garden this year that I really enjoyed utilizing in my cooking. My boyfriend and I enjoy spending time with our two dogs. We play a lot of ball! We also run outdoors and book races throughout the summer and fall to keep training and pushing our times and distances.
Ryan Ferretti is proof that someone just starting out can make a name for themselves at SPR Consulting. Ryan joined SPR Consulting nine years ago as a Junior Developer. Now a Senior Software Architect, his expertise covers everything from s iOS, Ruby on Rails and Kanban to XP Practices, Agile and SCRUM.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m working on back-end systems for a financial services firm to plan and execute trades.
How does that compare to your first job with SPR Consulting?
I was right out of college. I was put on a team of five developers to build the front end of a website. Now, I am the team lead on a 13-person team. I am in charge of all aspects of a project—staying on track, keeping developers focused, and paying attention to how teams integrate and work together.
How did SPR Consulting help you accelerate your career?
I was put on a project independently to win more work for the company. This put me in position to learn a complete process without having anyone to fall back on. I was the first one in to assess the client challenge, and the client liked what I did to resolve it. I was then entrusted as team lead.
What is the smartest thing you’ve done to progress in your career?
Doing tech projects outside of my day job. Consistently staying on the edge of new things coming out. You’re typically not using cutting-edge tools when you’re building something for a client. To keep up to date, you have to push yourself to do things outside of work, which you can then bring to projects when the time is right.
In 2008, I was working on a system for a client, when access to iPhone development became more available. I started learning the SDK by reading documentation, writing code and testing code; I showed some of my ideas at work and talked to the client about options they could adopt in a phone app. That turned into SPR Consulting’s first iOS project—and a big step forward in my career.
What was your biggest challenge?
I’m actually still working on this: When you are in a team together, you want everyone to be comfortable and ultimately become friends, but once you are the lead, you also have to challenge the team to do things that are unpopular. You want the team to be tight and cohesive, and you want to create a friendly work environment, but this also requires a new level of people skills to keep projects on track.
What advice can you offer for moving up from entry level to mid-level, and higher?
If you’re entry level, build your technical skills to improve how you write code for a system. As you get better, you can worry less about technical level and focus more on people skills. If you’re advanced, your focus will be more on integration of systems. If you’re trying to be a team lead, take on small projects to get experience and demonstrate interest.
Make it a habit to start independent projects or get involved in something in Open Source to learn new things. Not that the projects necessarily have to be independent—we did a company-wide Open Source project to build out an employee recruiting system; because we worked at the company, we had firsthand insight into its deficiencies and decided to create our own solution.
How do you spend your time when you are not working?
Right now I’m spending time with my new son! Other than that, I like to get outside as much as possible, whether it’s walking the dog or having a beer. But, what I really love is travel. Our last three big trips have been Bora Bora, Europe, and Greece. There is a time to put work aside and have fun.