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Climb the corporate ladder. Keep your eye on the ball. Pay your dues. A lot of the conventional wisdom about how to succeed in your career is sound, and the oft-recommended linear path upward frequently works well enough.

Many successful IT leaders are iconoclasts, however. They went against the grain, ignored advice or turned away from trends to find ways that were right for them. Here, they share some of their stories about the junctures where they disregarded prescribed career road maps, and they reveal how those choices helped them make it to the top.

Brian L. Abeyta

Advice I did not take: "I was advised early in my career to take a road-warrior-type consulting job that would expose me to a wide variety of business areas. What did not seem right was the potential impact it would have on my young family," says Brian L. Abeyta, who decided instead to try his luck as an operations manager at a large telecommunications company doing innovative work.

The outcome: "I was in a position where I learned from some really sharp executives. They helped me to see how they manoeuvred their careers, how they managed and led in the private sector, [how] to be bold," says Abeyta, now vice president of the IT management office at insurance provider Aflac. He says he saw how they successfully balanced their personal and professional lives.

Bruce Brody

The straight path I did not take: Bruce Brody started his career in the intelligence community, where most of his colleagues were moving ahead within that field. "But this was the 1980s, and computers were just coming into the mainstream in the federal environment. I decided to take a three-year stint in private industry to learn computer security in 1990 to '93 and then return to federal service as an information security professional," he says.

The outcome: "That move resulted in my becoming the first executive-level chief information security officer on the civilian side of the federal government, and I'm still the only person ever to have served as the CISO at two cabinet-level departments," says Brody, now vice president of information assurance at CACI International, which provides IT and network systems for national security, intelligence and e-government initiatives.

A grain of salt

How should you evaluate well-intended career advice? Researchers, career coaches and recruiters weigh in with these thoughts:

Look inward

Consider how the advice fits in with your own goals and objectives.

Get multiple perspectives

A professional mentor knows what makes smart business sense, but family and friends can help you assess advice from a personal perspective.

Think long term

Ponder how your decision will affect you in five or 10 years.

Keep an open mind

Do not rule out advice because the options now in front of you were not among your original goals.

Consider the source

Some mentors truly have your best interests in mind; others' advice might be clouded by their own issues.

Make a list, but trust your gut

Write down the pros and cons of following the advice so you can analyse it. Weigh the results against how you actually feel about the situation. A long list of pros should not win if the advice makes your stomach turn.

M. Lewis Temares

The expected move I did not make: Job-jumping is a tried-and-true method of leveraging your skills to get ahead quickly in IT. But it was not right for M. Lewis Temares, CIO at the University of Miami. "There is something to be said for not jumping," he says.

The outcome: Temares has built a successful career and developed a well-recognised IT organisation during his 27 years at the University of Miami. "If you show you are a believer in the company, the people who work for you will be too," argues Temares.

Dick Daniels

Advice I did not take: When Dick Daniels started in technology, he was advised to build his career within the IT organisation. "At that time, technology was emerging as a true profession, and there was a large demand for technologists. But I realised that IT is only useful when you apply it to a problem," he says. Instead Daniels took a programme manager's position and later became a chief operating officer.

The outcome: Daniels is now CIO for both the auto finance line and the Greenpoint Mortgage business at Capital One Services. He says his experience outside of IT accelerated his advancement into the executive ranks. "The advantage I had was some dedicated years to develop my business knowledge".

Autumn Bayles

Advice I did not take: Many IT workers are advised to specialise in a specific technology, but Autumn Bayles did not want to do that. Instead, she pushed herself to continually work with new technologies and applications.

The outcome: "I was a bit of a generalist, but it helped me progress more, because I was never so valuable that they were afraid to let me do anything else," Bayles says. She credits her diverse professional background with helping her get into the executive ranks. She was CIO at Tasty Baking from 2003 and 2006 and is now Tasty's senior vice president of strategic operations.

Howard Schmidt

Advice I did not take: "People talk about how you have to check the boxes, how you have to hold this position before you hold that one," says Howard Schmidt, a board member of the non-profit International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (ISC2). He says he chose not to follow a prescribed career path and instead looked for opportunities to use his talent and expertise in situations "where there was something new to be built or something in existence that needed to be fixed."

The outcome: Schmidt says that by finding those opportunities, he was able to accelerate his career through high-profile jobs such as White House cybersecurity adviser and chief security officer at Microsoft and eBay.

John Glaser

The expected move I did not make: Like most college graduates, John Glaser was expected to join the stampede into professional life. Instead, after graduating from Duke University in 1976, he went to work at a salmon cannery in Alaska, hitchhiked to Panama and then headed back to North Carolina to be with his college sweetheart. Glaser says he did not know what he wanted to do for work at the time, and he did not want to rush into the wrong job just to get his professional life started.

The outcome: While living in North Carolina, he got a tech-related job at the Research Triangle Institute working on the National Medical Care Expenditure Survey. Something clicked, and Glaser settled into a career in health care IT. He is now CIO at Partners HealthCare. He has also been married for 27 years to the woman he went back for.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in the US. Contact her at [email protected]