Will a Stint on the Business Side Boost Your IT Career?

Although startup entrepreneur Mike Scanlin began his journey as a software engineer, he found himself immersed in business from the start. At Garage.com, he had to build a new site that would accept business-plan submissions for possible funding. “To build it, I first had to learn all the elements of a business plan,” says Scanlin.

Once the site was built, Scanlin found himself invited to meetings with potential Garage.com startups. “They said, ‘We need you to meet with these software engineers and interview them about their plans and tell us if they’re making it up,’” he recalls.

Pretty soon, Scanlin was helping select business plans to pass on to venture firms and angel investors, reading about 15,000 of them in three-and-a-half years.

That experience came in handy, and Scanlin’s new startup, Born to Sell, offers online tools that help small investors sell options on stocks they own, a practice called “writing covered calls.” Having programming skills gave him a better site, he says, but he never would have been able to start his own company in the first place without the skills he learned during his time in venture capital.

Build Skills With Two Years in Business
Spending time “on the business side” is invaluable for any techie who aspires to run his or her own company someday. But what if your ambitions are to climb the ladder in IT, working inside an organization?

You should still consider a business job, advises Sriram Papani, head of Enterprise Business Solutions at the consulting and IT firm Mahindra Satyam. An ideal rotation, he adds, is two years. “Any technology’s end goal is to serve a business need,” he says. “A technologist can factor that understanding into product or solution engineering.”

A move into business can be great for your career, but not into just any business position, says Aaron Rallo, president and COO of PNI Digital Media, which provides a solution that offers on-demand personalization of retail products. (Rallo majored in computer science and started his career as a programmer.) “I’m not a fan of going into a pure business role,” he says. “Like making a jump where today I’m a programmer and tomorrow I’m in marketing. There’s much more benefit in a role where you’re still leveraging your technology skills.”

What business jobs does he recommend for techies? “Early in your career, sales support might be a really good fit. A lot of technology companies need a tech person to go to meetings along with salespeople who may not fully understand the products they’re selling.” Later in your career, he says, playing a leading on technology teams might be a good move.

Is It for Everyone?
Not necessarily. “It depends on the aspirations of the individual,” says Rallo. “I know a lot of programmers who are thrilled to write code all day and don’t want anyone to bother them.” If that’s you, then working in business might not make much sense.

And, he says, though most techies could learn from spending time in business, it might not be worth the effort for some.

“If it’s going to take them very far outside their comfort zone, there may not be a benefit to that. It’s fine to stay put in a purely technology role.”

The most important thing, he advises, is to choose jobs that make sense for your own aspirations. “It’s a lot more about who you are and what you want to do than it is about whether it’s good or bad to move from technology to business,” he says. “If working in business aligns with your personal goals, then it’s good. If not, maybe it isn’t. Whatever you do, don’t let someone force you into a role that doesn’t fit what you want.”

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How to Captivate Your Audience (Instruction 101, Part II)

You have to give a presentation, and you find yourself wondering: “Will anyone be listening to what I say?” With time and attention in such short supply, it’s easy enough to imagine audience members checking their email, napping or, worst of all, tweeting to each other about what a snooze your presentation is.

You can avoid this by knowing how to engage your audience from beginning. Here are six tips from the experts for keeping your audience hooked during any presentation:

1. Make it interactive. Even though you’ve wisely done your homework and know what your audience is looking for, start by asking some questions. “It shows interest from your side,” says Lawrence Burgee, department chair of The Division of Information Technology at Stevenson University. “If I go home to my spouse, it’s better for me to say ‘How was your day?’ instead of just telling her about my day. It works for business associates too.”

Besides, you may learn something you need to know. John Proffitt, senior consultant at the computer support company Design-PT, was conducting a training session on a new phone system with many different features recently. He mentioned in passing that the system would allow users to send calls to a “parking lot,” where any other user could pick up the call. The audience responded immediately. “I had thought I understood how they handled calls, but I didn’t realize this would be a big hit,” he says. “I had to let the students teach me.”

2. Get buy-in. You do this by explaining up-front what your audience will learn during your session, and how this new information will benefit them. “I’ve seen too many presentations where a geeky person launches right into walking the audience through the technical information,” says Burgee. “You have to build rapport first by letting them know you’re there to help them.”

3. Speak plain English. If your audience is non-technical, they won’t react well to technology terms, even those that seem completely clear to you. “It’s easy to be passionate about new technology and wind up talking over people’s heads,” says Mike Scheuermann, associate vice president of Instructional Technology Support at Drexel University. “Showing passion is good, but you have to put yourself in the shoes of your audience.”

4. Remember to “chunk.” Most people can only assimilate information in limited amounts at one time. That may be 15 minutes or half an hour or more, depending on the subject matter. You can help them by taking breaks at regular intervals and dividing your information into modules that the audience can focus on one at a time.

5. Get feedback. Asking the audience to fill out an evaluation form is a great way to find out if you succeeded in engaging their interest. Burgee also recommends following the session with lunch or some other informal gathering. “You get a lot of valuable feedback that way.”

6. Follow up one-on-one. “If I can, I walk around the location right after the class or later that day,” says Proffitt. “You can catch people one-on-one and say, ‘Is there anything you didn’t understand?’ They can ask the questions they thought were too stupid to ask in front of everyone else.”

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Photo: @iStockphoto.com/Sean_Warren

Instruction 101, Part I: Get Your Message Across

It’s a moment many geeks dread. At some point in your career, it’s likely you’ll have to teach your peers -- or worse, your non-technical co-workers or customers -- about a new technology.

Doing so can be a real boost to your career, not only because it gives you great visibility within your organization -- and sometimes beyond it -- but also because it will help you increase your expertise. “You never truly master something until you teach it to someone else,” says Jeremiah Dunham, president of the IT support company Design-PT and an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

Teaching is daunting, especially if you’ve never done it before. Here are four keys to making sure you come across like a pro:

1. Know your audience. Find out who’s likely to be there, and most important, what they’ll want to learn from you. This is especially vital when teaching a non-technical audience about technology. You may love the new technology or product for its elegant design and functionality, but that’s unlikely to matter to a lay audience that will only want to know how the product can help them do their jobs more easily, increase revenues or save the company money. They may also be worried that newer, more efficient technology will result in layoffs, so make sure you’re sensitive to those concerns.

2. Set the stage. Finding the right location for your teaching session can be tricky. You want a setting where you won’t be interrupted or distracted by nearby noise. “A lab type of environment, where everyone has their own computer, is the most effective setting if you’re teaching a new piece of software,” notes Dunham.

Always visit the room beforehand. “If you’re in a new venue, you need to check out every aspect of it: room size, chair arrangement, lighting, acoustics and any technology you’re going to use,” says Mike Scheuermann, associate vice president of Instructional Technology Support at Drexel University. “If you have a glitch because you didn’t prepare, you can undermine your own effectiveness.”

3. Dress the part. Your audience will feel more comfortable with you, and thus be more receptive to what you say, if your attire reflects theirs. In most cases, this means that you, as a geek, will have to look more formal than usual. But the reverse can also be true.

Early in his career, Lawrence Burgee, department chair of Information Systems at Stevenson University had to make a presentation to 500 public utility workers. He arrived dressed for business, as was required in the company’s headquarters offices, where he worked. But the utility workers, who spent their time out in the field, were wearing jeans and T-shirts. “As I walked through the door, I heard one audience member tell his neighbor, ‘Here comes another suit!’” Burgee recalls. “I set the wrong tone by dressing wrong.”

4. Plan to record. “We encourage everyone we deal with to at least consider recording their presentations,” says Scheuermann. “It provides a great benefit for audience members to be able to go over the material again, whether or not they attended the session face-to-face. There are vast numbers of technologies that let you record with different feature sets, and the less expensive ones can be just as effective. It’s a best practice to always make a recording.”

Mastering these steps should give you as much confidence in your presentation skills as you have in your tech know-how.

Coming next month: “Instruction 101, Part II: Keep Your Audience Engaged.”

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