Don't make management play second fiddle
Rich Ptak, principal analyst at market research firm Ptak, Noel & Associates, says he witnessed the demise of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) because he believes Ken Olsen and others at the time didn't recognise how the management of the business tied back into the success of the technology. For Ptak, the realisation was an epiphany that led him away from his technologist roles to become an industry analyst.

"Management was just a secondary task at the time," Ptak explains. "The real crux of networking is that it's made up of a bunch of componentised devices that when connected make the business run smoothly. It wasn't that DEC had bad technology or products; it was that the management of the business wasn't incorporated into them."

Network professionals must also balance the effectiveness of their current skills against investigating leading-edge technologies that could advance their careers. Focusing only on the day-to-day operations vs. exploring new tools and processes can mean the difference between advancing in the organisation or being left behind in an ineffective position.

Chris Gahagan, senior VP of EMC Software, started his career at HP and says he recognised the importance of the network but also its role of providing connectivity to the applications and services that run on it. For him, getting ahead required moving to SpectraLogic to explore what at the time was a new area of networking, backup.

"What I saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s was that the network was an enabler for a lot of other technologies and that the network could add value to other applications and services," he explains. "I left HP, but was able to start up the software part of a business based on what the network could enable."

Be open to change
CSC's Joy points out that often those in technology positions get stuck in a rut of specialisation. She offers advice along the same lines as Gahagan: be open to changing your focus before your role becomes obsolete.

"Often you get to the point where you can't go higher doing that thing that you loved so much," she says. "But then a light bulb goes off, and it's obvious that you can get ahead with a new technology, which you will also learn to love."

Brian Jones, manager of network engineering and operations manager at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, says his success in networking comes from a broad understanding of network technologies and the capabilities to apply them in a specialised way. Also with the ever-changing nature of technology, he says embracing change in your current position will serve you in the long run.

"The best advice I could offer would be to not get too comfortable with where you are in an IT organisation if you plan to move up the chain. Embrace change, because the technology is changing; either you move with it, or it moves without you," he says. "Stay up-to-date with how the new technologies may affect the way you do things within your organisation, and keep a broad view, because a narrow focus can be costly - just ask the people who invested lots of money in ATM as a LAN delivery system."

Persistence long has been a home run for oft-quoted industry watcher Frank Dzubeck. Dzubeck, president of consultancy Communications Network Architects, learned early on in his 40-year career not to become complacent.

Don't get too comfortable
"If you start to get lackadaisical and start to enjoy yourself and sit back, it just doesn't work," Dzubeck says. "Because everything changes. That has kept me steady all the way through."

That's just one piece of the lifelong advice Dzubeck received when he was a 22-year-old systems representative at RCA, a now-defunct, Washington, DC, computer company with customers in the government and military markets. The other advice was to be creative and to always take risk.

"Never sit back and just assume somebody will do something for you," he says.

"The computer industry was extremely young at that time, and everybody that I worked with came from the government or the military," he says. "They didn't look at the clock."

Tom Bishop, CTO of BMC Software with 20 years of experience at such companies as IBM Tivoli and start-up Cesura (formerly Vieo), says network professionals need to be evolving at all times to stay relevant to their companies.

"The best advice I got and can offer is to continually ask yourself, 'Am I doing what the organisation needs me to do?' If you aren't, then someone is not happy with you." Bishop says. "The answer to the question should always change in terms of what you should be doing to be useful to the organisation. Today it's all about business-oriented IT, and holding onto any old view of networking will only make you a dinosaur in your IT shop."

Think like customers
For many the best advice they received taught them to know more than the technology; it taught them to think about the customer.

For Judith Hurwitz, long-time industry watcher and president of the Hurwitz & Associates research and consulting firm, being loyal to the customers has served her well. In a position in which she could easily side with vendors when they are pitching their wares, Hurwitz says she took the advice offered to her years ago by Mitchell Kurtzman, the head of PowerSoft, a company that developed tools for COBOL programmers.

"Instead of building the most elegant technology possible in a time when you could, [Kurtzman] looked at his customer, the COBOL programmers, and developed a tool that could make these non-respected programmers look better to their management," she explains. "I learned that if you focus on the customer, making the consumer of the technology successful, then everything else follows."

Todd DeLaughter, vice president and general manager of HP's management software organisation, agrees. He recalls a time when he was a software programmer, designing elaborate GUIs that his boss pointed out might not be useful to the customer.

"He just asked me, 'What do you think the customer would think of that?' " DeLaughter says. "I realised then, being a technologist, I was getting wound down in the weeds about stuff customers just don't care about. As a technology provider in networking, you have to put yourself in the shoes of the customers to be effective."