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From snake dodger to IT Manager: If I can build a career in digital, so can you

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SnakeI’m Chris Penner, and I manage two of HMRC’s digital delivery centres - London and Worthing. I started my working career as a gold exploration geologist dodging snakes and malaria in West Africa, but here I am now working in IT management. I’m happiest when nesting IT functions and my career journey makes far more sense in retrospect than it did at the time. Here’s some thoughts on building a digital career.

Getting into digital

I’m often being asked how to get into digital, and people seem to assume you have to be a developer. I don’t hold all the answers but, having reflected on this a bit, I think there are some broad groups. Generally, there seem to be two kinds of people who want to be developers - those who do it for the love of developing and those for whom it’s a transitional role. There’s also a third type of person whose talents suit other roles in the team so they skip the developer route altogether. This more closely matches my own journey.

Let’s unpack this a bit more.

Person 1: the true developer

This could well be you if you:

  • feel tremendous joy when playing with complex Excel formulas
  • got into coding clubs as a youngster or own a Raspberry Pi and have done something more with it than run XBMC
  • didn’t weep with frustration when you first encountered the Linux command line
  • set up Google’s Coder and have done more than change the colour of the eyeball
  • play around with some harder core development environments as well, like the Android IDE or Microsoft’s Visual Studio, to put together a working service or application just for the hell of it
  • have a big box of computer bits that you think may come in handy one day.

To formally turn this into a career, there are plenty of on-the-job training schemes available throughout government. For instance, HMRC have an apprenticeship scheme and are working on ways of getting promising people already in the department into development roles through a talent management programme.

Person 2: transition your developer skills

Working as a developer for a few years will give you excellent problem solving and team working skills, as well as an ability to deliver something quickly. You may find that you want to change career direction and you will be well-positioned to become an account manager, project manager, or scrum master.

Often this change is not part of any original plan. I had a lead developer a few years ago who realised his colleagues, instead of going out with their friends, were spending the weekends developing an operating system from scratch - for fun. It was at this point he realised he needed to swap to project management.

So if you start to find a shift happening in what engages you at work, keep in mind the next career move and make sure you grow your skill set accordingly. Your network is also important, so start looking at the communities of practice in your next area and get involved with them.

Person 3: the tech is putting you off

On reading the above you may find that, though you have an interest in technology, you have only really tinkered around the edges so far.

In this case your skill set could still be very valuable in other aspects of digital delivery. Making fantastic digital services needs developers, but it also requires:

  • deep understanding of the business (business analysts and product owners)
  • knowledge of user behaviour (user researchers)
  • someone to co-ordinate the team and facilitate them (scrum masters)
  • an excellent and compelling design (front end designers)
  • amazingly understandable content (content designers)
  • positioning within a wider portfolio of projects (project managers and portfolio managers)
  • people who care passionately about the service being developed and delivered (product owners, product manager and digital service managers), and
  • people to oversee the whole thing (delivery managers and architects).

It’s a long list! But you’ll still need a way in - either to digital or traditional IT delivery. Depending where you work, you could volunteer to be part of a business-led project (this doesn’t even have to be IT-based - process and people-led change need similar skills). Working on your influencing skills with senior managers and proving you get stuff done is also a good idea.

And, if you’re in the public sector, have a read of the Government Digital Service Manual to get a feel for the main roles involved and keep an eye on jobs boards to see what is popular and the skills needed, so you know where to focus your energy. Your organisation may well have communities of practice where groups of say business analysts can get together and discuss the latest developments in their area. Find these groups and build your network. You are empowered to do this, and by making your own luck you are much more likely to find the role you are dreaming of and be successful in it.

So, in summary, you don’t have to be a developer to get into digital. But if you do happen to be one right now we’re looking for some to join our team.

Good luck, whichever path you are on.

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