Underrated Traits of Successful IT Employees

With many companies and educational institutions looking for this ideal employee, especially in challenging recruitment cycles, it can be helpful to delve into the non-technical skills people acquire in their early years. An employee’s true value can be hidden in seemingly irrelevant experiences, lessons learned, or personality traits. Hiring successful employees in IT-related fields may have less to do with a degree in computer science and more to do with unrealized value. Here are some examples of IT professionals who have used these core experiences to gain and thrive in their future careers.

Ethical work for life

Leading a global educational association with a mission to advance higher education through information technology with thousands of members can be a daunting task. However, for John O’Brien, president of the nonprofit Educause, being a former faculty member and deputy chief information officer was only part of his career development. John remembers many years ago working in a restaurant and someone said to him, “When there’s nothing to do, find something to do.” John says it’s the best advice ever, and it “took me so long to understand the importance of making yourself irreplaceable.”As he continued to grow in his IT career, John realized that collaboration, strategic vision (without getting bogged down in tactical issues), communication, and empathy are important traits to be a successful IT practitioner. In his 2018 article Strategic Information Technology: What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There, John emphasized that it’s not just about technology, but how IT can be seen and understood as a strategic asset. Successful IT employees need to look beyond technology to see the strategic advantage of their vision and decisions.

Learn to Trade

Successful IT employees work under 30,000 feet in width, and in trenches they can see things from a different perspective. Take Cassidy Miles, a network engineer in Wisconsin, for example. He says his diverse experiences outside of IT have been formative in his career development. Cassidy notes that, “Work such as auto repair and restoration, electronics and building knowledge have all deepened my capabilities. I have found that being able to blend experiences between all of these areas has been pivotal in being able to provide unique solutions that might not otherwise have been possible.”

At a young age, working on cars with his father was not only a bonding experience but also taught him important problem-solving skills. For Cassidy, the role of technology is not to ensure your success as an employee: you also need strong customer service, good reasoning skills, and a sound understanding of your business or organization.

Leadership with a vision

One of the inequalities in IT jobs is the lack of women studying technology. According to the online tech community Built In, only about 25 percent of tech jobs are held by women. Additionally, “the five largest technology companies on the planet (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) have a workforce of approximately 34.4 percent women.”

Help Desk Specialist Erin Boysen has come from unconventional professional experiences to become a successful IT professional. Erin entered the IT field with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies and a theater minor, along with a Master’s degree in Theology and Arts. When reviewing her resume, one might not conclude that she would qualify for the IT job that she was awarded, but look closely at her preparation. As a stage manager, she needed organization, practice, communication and the ability to bring a team together to implement a common vision. Most importantly, when the curtain was raised, her team had to be ready, not 10 minutes later. For Erin, an IT employee needs “strong communication skills orally, in writing and in public speaking. You also need to have good interpersonal skills, especially in a crisis, and have empathy.”

The drummer adjusts the speed

Nate Weissenberger, a System Administrator at the University of Wisconsin, has been in the IT field for nearly 30 years. Like Cassidy, he worked with his father in an auto repair shop and learned to troubleshoot. During his early years, he discovered the importance of reading documentation and solving problems on his own.

In later years he joined the rock band as a drummer. One might wonder about the relationship between the drummer and IT, but Nate learned an important lesson: the drummer sets the pace, sets the foundation, and provides the rhythm for the band. Just as in IT, all team members must work in unison to be successful. The “drummer” of the team can set and maintain the speed. If the pace is too slow, too fast, or out of team, dysfunction may ensue. It is important to keep the pace of the project reasonable and play together.

As drummer Tony Williams once said, “Playing fast around the drums is one thing. But to play music, and to play with people for others to listen to, that is another. This is a whole other world.” An effective team that can play together can create music Don’t forget those you serve.


The last example is from the same author. I come from a non-traditional background in information technology. My undergraduate degree was in mass communication and photography. Graduate school introduced me to the world of educational technology. From there she moved onto boards of directors in the areas of media services, educational and academic technology, and customer services, eventually rising to the position of chief information officer. The most important skills I’ve learned are not technology related.

What I have found to be the most important skills are communication, leadership, honesty, and empathy. Degrees in IT-related fields do not guarantee a successful IT career.

Skills beyond technical abilities are those you learned from your parents, colleagues, mentors, and in previous jobs. As you round up your IT staff, it can be beneficial to blend in with new and enthusiastic “friendly” employees who can be carefully mentored and developed with more experienced and established performers. When you’re looking for senior IT employees, you may need to look beyond the traditional resume glass. Look for potential IT employees with favorable job attributes that don’t seem too obvious, and you may find performance stars before someone else hires them first. Look carefully and more deeply into the experiences of the potential employee. As the knight says in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “You chose wisely.” It will be music to your ears, as the drummer plays.

Jim A.  Gorstad

Jim Jorstad is an innovative global force in the effective use of technology in teaching, learning and research. He is currently the Interim Chief Information Officer at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and leads a team responsible for providing services to more than 1,500 employees and 10,000 students. He has extensive experience designing learning space, strategic social media and the deployment of key IT technologies. His film and journalistic work has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR and was awarded the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is also a Leading Fellow for Change at EDUCAUSE, and is one of 50 IT professionals selected worldwide to receive the award.

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