Underrated Traits of Successful IT Employees

As many companies and educational institutions search for that ideal employee, especially in challenging hiring cycles, it may be helpful to look deeper into non-technical skills people acquire in their early years. An employee’s true value could be hidden in seemingly unrelated 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 so with unrealized value. Here are some examples of IT professionals who used these underlying experiences to gain and flourish in their future careers.


Leading a worldwide educational association whose mission is 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 a deputy CIO were only parts of his career development. John remembers many years ago working at a restaurant and someone told him, “When there’s nothing to do, find something to do.” John says it’s the best advice ever, and it “took a long time to understand the importance of making yourself indispensable.”As he continued growing in his IT career, John realized that collaboration, strategic vision (without getting bogged down into tactical issues), communications and empathy are important traits to be a successful IT practitioner. In his 2018 article “Strategic IT: What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There,” John stresses 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 the technology to see the strategic advantage of their vision and decisions.


Successful IT employees work below the 30,000-foot view, and in the trenches can see things from a different perspective. Take Cassidy Miles, a network engineer in Wisconsin. He says his diverse experiences outside of IT were formative in his career development. Cassidy points out, “Work such as automotive repair and restoration, electronics and construction knowledge have all contributed to adding to the depth of my abilities. 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 otherwise may not have been possible.”

At an early age, working on cars with his dad was not only a bonding experience, but it also taught him important problem-solving skills. For Cassidy, it’s not the role of technology 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.


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

Erin Boysen, a help desk specialist, has come from unconventional career experiences to become a successful IT professional. Erin came into the IT field with a Bachelor of Arts in communications studies and a theater minor, along with a master’s degree in theology and the arts. When reviewing her resume, one may not conclude she would be qualified for the IT position she obtained, but look more closely at her preparation. As a stage director, she needed to be organized, practice, communicate and be able to bring a team together to execute a common vision. Most importantly, when the curtain went up, her team needed to be ready, not 10 minutes later. For Erin, an IT employee needs to have “strong communication skills both orally, written, and in public speaking. You also need to be able to have good interpersonal skills, especially in a crisis, and have empathy.”


Nate Weissenberger, a system administrator for the University of Wisconsin, has worked in IT 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 to problem-solve on his own.

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

As drummer Tony Williams once said, “Playing fast around the drums is one thing. But to play music, to play with people for others to listen to, that’s something else. That’s a whole other world.” Forming an effective team that can play together can create memorable music to those you provide services to.


The final example is from the author himself. I come from an unconventional IT background. My undergraduate degree was in mass communications and photography. Graduate school introduced me to the world of instructional technology. From there I navigated directorships in areas of media services, educational and academic technology, client services and ultimately ascended to chief information officer. The most important skills I’ve learned are not about technology.

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

The skills which transcend technical abilities are the ones you learned from your parents, colleagues, mentors, and in past jobs. When you’re assembling your IT staff, it can be helpful to blend in new “green” and enthusiastic employees who can be carefully mentored and developed with your more experienced and proven performers. When you’re looking for top employees in IT, you may need to gaze beyond the traditional resume looking glass. Look for potential IT staff with favorable employment traits that don’t appear so obvious, and you may find your star performers before someone else hires them first. Look carefully and more deeply into a potential employee’s experiences. As the knight says in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “You have chosen wisely.” It’ll be music to your ears, as the drummer plays on.

Jim Jorstad is an innovative global force on the effective use of technology in teaching, learning and research. Currently the interim CIO at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, he heads a team responsible for providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. He has extensive experience in learning space design, strategic social media and deploying major IT technologies. His film and journalist work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR and he is the recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is also an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow, one of 50 IT professionals chosen worldwide for the award.

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