Learning to Pivot

By Staff Contributor on September 18, 2015

The role of information technology inside of corporations is not new; it has existed for decades. With each passing year, we see an acceleration in the speed and complexity of changes to our roles as IT professionals.

Industries as a whole tend to resist change. This makes sense because industries are made of corporations, those corporations are made of people, and people tend to resist change. It’s hard to get humans to stop being so…human. With all the changes taking place around us every day it can be hard to focus on which changes are the important ones.

Do I learn a new programming language? Should I learn how to be a database administrator? Should I learn data analytics? Do I get that lobotomy MBA?

John Kao, master pivoter

I believe that the acceleration of changes available to IT professionals over the past twenty years has had an ancillary benefit that has gone unnoticed. As IT professionals, we are often expected to know intricate details about various systems. In my case as a database administrator, my coworkers expected me to administer any product that was either stored in a database (such as Exchange and Active Directory®), or if the product had “SQL” in the name.


“A polymath is someone who has experience in a number of different subject areas, and who uses this experience in order to solve problems.”


The benefit, I believe, that has gone unnoticed is a rise in the number of people identified as polymaths. A polymath is someone who has experience in a number of different subject areas, and who uses this experience in order to solve problems. This is where I remind you that good judgment is the result of experience, and experience is often the result of bad judgment.

Polymaths make good IT professionals. They succeed in our industry because they are not resistant to change. Polymaths are often described as creative or innovative. I see polymaths as people that (1) have an open mind, (2) are pragmatic, and (3) have been around long enough to know that everything old is new again.

Take virtualization as an example. Today’s virtualization was yesterday’s mainframe. Yet many people believe virtualization to be a recent concept. Virtualization happens to be mainframe concepts applied in a creative way by someone with the ability to be innovative.

Polymaths are also successful in IT because they have the ability to pivot, to shift themselves into new roles and career paths either internal to their current employer or external to a new company.

We know that corporations have more loyalty to shareholders than to their own employees. So it isn’t surprising to see that employees are not being loyal to their company. If you want to be employed as an IT professional for many years to come, you need to know-how, and when, to pivot. You must be taking steps to pivot yourself into different roles as necessary throughout your career.

I’ve often heard that an IT professional needs to be in a constant state of learning. I believe we need to do more. I believe we need to be teaching and mentoring as well. We should be encouraging new ideas. We should reward peers for thinking differently about how they solved a problem we’ve seen before. We should be thinking about how to help others, and ourselves, pivot our careers.

If you want to learn how to pivot your career, here are three things you can start doing today:

Embrace new technologies. Take the time to understand why the technology was created, who invented it, and what problem it is trying to solve. Even if it doesn’t suit your needs today, it might be what you need tomorrow.

Look for time savers. Don’t deploy every shiny object you find to production just because you can. Focus on those pieces of technology that will improve efficiencies by saving time first, because time is a resource you cannot buy as easily as a piece of hardware.

Become a communicator. Hard skills have a cap, both in terms of salary and corporate hierarchy. Soft skills have no limit. Learn how to communicate with your peers as well as executives.

The ability to pivot and to be a polymath are the skills that will serve everyone well in our careers, both inside and outside of IT, as advances in technology continue to accelerate.

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