Career Development Options for IT Managers in South Africa

By Mathias Tölken | Operational IT Leadership

May 15

Up to here it was easy… the professional development options and career paths for a technical IT person are well mapped out by many of the vendors and training institutions. You have excelled in this, have been noticed and have been promoted to IT Manager.  But now it becomes murkier, especially if you work for a small or mid-sized organisation where you likely are the only IT leader around and have a small team reporting to you. You are still expected to crawl under the desk and plug in the cables where needed, but on the other hand everyone now also expects you to provide strategic input, lead the IT team and generally produce more business value from the use of IT. You are in constant firefighting mode and are being pulled from all sides. And if you want to talk about strategy, you find that you rarely have access to higher-level management.

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This is the typical scenario that IT Managers I speak to sketch again and again. Many of them also echo the sentiment that they feel left alone in this predicament and do not know where and whom to turn to.

Articles like this one on CIO.com are meant well by the authors and highlight important aspects, but they tend to only increase the pressure on the (new) IT Manager.

“How on earth am I supposed to get to all this?”

Relax…

How do you eat an elephant? – One bite at a time.

In this article I am highlighting the top 10 options or “modes of learning” that an IT Manager – or any IT leader for that matter – can choose from, to develop their career away from a purely technical one to a more managerial one – and to keep on learning for the rest of their life.

Since there is a lot of content, you may want to park this for later. In this case, I suggest you download the handy Excel spreadsheet to help you with quickly finding the options that suit you.

With each mode I will be giving a few examples to provide a starting point.  

The Four Value Propositions of IT and your Personal Journey

But before we look at the different options, we also have to understand that IT Manager ≠ IT Manager. First of all, you landed here via different paths: You might have been a desktop technician, a server engineer, a software developer or any of a myriad of other generalists or specialists from within or outside the area of Information Technology before you became an IT Manager. And this past will definitely help shape your current position and your future career path.

There are furthermore four distinct Value Propositions that IT has in any business. It is far beyond the scope of this article to go more into detail on this topic, but I would strongly suggest that you have a look at the recent blog by Mark Geschke. Over time you will have to decide which one (and only one!) Value Proposition you will be based in.

We are all different and it is up to you to find your niche and your happy place.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

This article on forbes.com is asking a few hard questions and at the end gives some tools, not least of all the Clifton StrengthsFinder, a tool that has already helped millions to identify their personal talents and that I personally found very helpful.

Live your Legend is another awesome resource and movement to interrogate yourself personally to define where you want to go. Expect to be challenged!

“The better you know yourself, the more likely you are to do work that matters.” – Scott Dinsmore, Live your Legend 

But now let’s look at the ten options for career development available

1. Articles, Podcasts, Videos & Books

Whilst your HR department and your mangers can help you with the next step, ultimately your professional development is your own responsibility.

The starting point for any research these days is the Internet. There is a myriad of information available there and it won’t take long before your head buzzes and you can easily go down a rabbit hole in your research. If approached in a structured manner on the other hand, the internet is an invaluable source of information and we have below compiled a few links per topic to start your research with.

Whichever of the following career development options you will take, you will almost inevitably start with online articles, podcasts and videos or even books and if you are a prolific reader, it might well be that you will make this your main angle of approach throughout.

Image Credit: flickr

Background Reading & Online Resources

I would suggest that you start compiling a list of keywords, phrases and relevant websites to start your research with. I have used a whole host of terms and buzzwords in this article, many of them with sample links provided. Do note the ones that resonate with you and use them as starting point. I am sure that you will find many more and refine your list as you go on. And if you find any resources and links that you think should be included in this resource, please do get in contact with me – either via the comments below or directly via email or LinkedIn. We can jointly make this a go-to resource for IT Managers in South Africa.

A few central keywords that I stumbled across time and again are:

  • Business Technology Management / BTM (this is also the overarching term I will be using throughout this article for the competencies that any IT Manager needs to attain)
  • Business IT
  • Management
  • IT Manager
  • CIO / Chief Information Officer
  • IT Leader(ship)
  • Career Development
  • Professional Development

One very important point to note when doing your research is the age of the information that you are reading. IT is one of the fastest moving fields around and any article or book older than 3-4 years should be treated with caution.

Now let me give you a few general resources that helped me a lot to get started when researching this topic:

Cornell University has got quite a few general tips for IT careers as well as some Top 10 lists. Although it was written for their own internal IT department and needs and should be read as such, in true academic fashion, it gives a very good background as to how companies and IT Managers can approach career development.

Another good starting point is the Skills Framework for the Information Age. According to the website it is “your essential resource for organisational design and talent management in Information Technology” and it indeed has a huge amount of information contained in it. But be warned – it is a very complex framework and you will need some time to find your way. Its focus tends to also be more on the technical side and you will have to delve deeper to find the business technology management aspects.

One of the best resources for finding IT training in South Africa is the itWeb Training Web Portal. Unfortunately it to date also mainly focuses on technical and vendor-specific training, but I would hazard a guess that that will be changing over time.

If you want to do some broad reading, ClickSoftware has done some of the heavy lifting and has compiled a list of 50 top resources and blogs for CIOs and IT Managers. Please beware that not all 50 are links to information as quite a few are tools and applications that would not be applicable to this topic. Nevertheless, this is one of the better lists I have found out there.

One additional resource that is not listed in the 50 above and that I would reference is the CIO Index. “Over 60,000 CIOs and other IT Executives use CIO Index to Learn, Network and Share.”

Obviously, once you have done some broad reading, you can hone in on any topic and find a multitude of information online. This would include articles, videos, podcasts and various courses (I will deal with the latter in more detail below).

Books

If you would rather have your content a bit more organised in one place or you just love the feel of a good book (be it physically or on any e-reader), there are literally thousands of titles available. I will again only list three as a starting point:

Let’s first take a step back and look at the current state of IT – or rather the current flux. Charles Araujo in 2012 published his bestselling book The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change and he is currently working on two more books. 

Short description: 'IT as we know it is dead.' Forces are at work that are reshaping the very fabric of the IT organization. Driven by our own history, changing perceptions of how technology should work and newfound, but very real, competition, IT organizations are struggling to evolve - but into what? In The Quantum Age of IT, Charles Araujo examines what has led us to this point and what it means to the future of IT organizations. With a broad perspective on the fundamental changes affecting the industry, he offers practical guidance that every IT professional needs to compete in this new era of IT.

A much more pragmatic and traditional book is the IT Manager’s Handbook by Bill Holtsnider and Brian D. Jaffe, first published in 2000, which saw the third edition published in 2012. It also has a “sibling” with a “Business Edition, published in 2009. As mentioned before, I would be cautious to take a resource of this age as gospel in this fast-changing field, but it has been reviewed in regular intervals and many of the concepts are timeless.

Short description: Making the move from an IT technician or team member to management is one of the most difficult career steps you’ll face. Help from management and targeted training can be hard to come by - and your success depends on your ability to adapt to your new role almost overnight. You might have years of experience in the trenches, but you’ll quickly find that managing a team, setting budgets, and creating a winning strategy for the first time can be daunting tasks. Now in its third edition, IT Manager’s Handbook provides a practical reference that you will return to again and again in an ever-changing corporate environment where the demands on IT continue to increase.

A third option is a free e-book IT Management-101: fundamentals to achieve more™, 2nd edition, by Mike Sisco. His website also features many more resources for IT Managers.

Short description: The challenge of managing technology resources has never been more demanding than it is now. Change occurs more rapidly and technology resources are in more demand than ever before. People and companies respond to strong leadership. Effective leadership skills give a technology manager an edge in creating and maintaining a stable business environment. This leads to more success and an IT organization that's valued and appreciated by the business managers of your company.

As I was writing this, I realised that the above first option for career development could easily have been several individual modes of learning, but with so many ways I could slice and dice the information, I decided to keep it as one. With the following ones I will try to make them more distinct, but I need to warn here already that there will be much overlap and ambiguity and once more, you will have to find your own way to navigate the information.

Courses

Not everyone is an avid reader and you might also like to have your content a lot more structured around specific topics or even into learning programs. The next four options for career development for IT managers are different modes of learning and courseware that span durations from a few minutes of watching online videos to multi-year graduate courses.

I have loosely divided the course options into “Online – Own Time”, “Online – Fixed Schedule”, “In-person – Short Courses” and “In-person – Graduate/Post-Graduate Courses”. Often the distinction between these is not clear as they make use of multiple modes of training and many institutions do offer several options to cater for the widest possible audience. Whilst many of the courses aimed at IT Managers or any other mid-management level working person are provided on a part-time basis, some of them are only available full-time.

You also have the option of attaining a multitude of certificates, diplomas and even degrees if you so wish.

The decision to choose one mode of learning above the other will greatly depend on your current situation, the career path you are aiming for as well as the intensity, duration and cost you and / or your employer are able to stomach.

2. Online Courses - On Demand

The past few years have seen the advent of many online training portals. Some started “in the cloud”, but about every university and training institution has now jumped onto the bandwagon and is providing online courses. Many of these courses are available free of charge, but you also have subscription options or other paid-for offers.

This first type of online learning has the great advantage of absolute flexibility -  you can learn in your own time, 24 hours a day, whenever you have a bit of time available. But herein also lays the greatest pitfall: you will have to do your own time management and it takes a lot of self-discipline to find or make the time available for this type of learning. The “firefighting mode” that I alluded to previously makes it extremely difficult for IT Managers to take the step back and make the required time for self-directed learning available.

A benefit, but also potential danger of especially the shorter course options is that you will have to mix and match your own menu of courses as you go along. The obvious benefit is that you can learn just-in time and about topics that have a direct bearing on your current needs. This also assists with the problem of having only small chunks of time available for learning. The downside in that is that you will often be biased toward a specific “pet topic” and disregard the other aspects of which you don’t know what you don’t know.

A third potential pitfall can be the lack of interaction with and feedback from others if you do opt for courses that are not facilitated at a specific time. Some courseware providers have counteracted that by creating forums for students to interact or even “instructors on call” – as part of the course fee or as a paid-for add-on.

See also the following link for some more caution about online learning

Please note that I am a very fervent advocate of online learning and do think the benefits are immense. I personally do many hours a week of online reading and whenever I have a new task to master, I will inevitably try to find an online article or even better a short course to help me.

But it is imperative to be aware of the potential dangers when selecting which way to go in your career development.

But enough of the talk – let’s get down to action:

Resources

One resource that specifically speaks to this audience is the 20 Minute IT Manager. It provides about 160 individual twenty minute sessions to choose from, either individually or as a bundle.

The next link is again a compilation of online course providers that was put together a few months ago. We sifted them further and compiled a sublist that enumerates the ones relevant on the topic of information technology, but please be aware that some of them are quite technical and one does have to sift through quite a few to get to courses that are specifically applicable to Business Technology Management:

As you will quickly realise, there is a multitude of options and they do differ in technology, application, style and obviously price. It is important that you find something that works well for you. (Un)fortunately higher price is also not always an indicator of better quality and there are a lot of free or very affordable options available to start with and test the waters, before you have to commit to a hefty sum.

3. Online Courses - Fixed Schedule

This section is a step up in formality. We are still looking at online-only offers, but these are facilitated by human educators and run at specific scheduled intervals.

Most traditional training institutions are providing their online courses in facilitated programs. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have gotten a lot of positive and negative publicity in recent years and it would be beyond the scope of this article to join in the discussion. The general consensus is that this type of learning has its pitfalls, but the benefits far outweigh the downsides.

 

The one aspect that I do want to highlight is that even here, own time management and self-discipline is imperative. Different studies of hundreds of MOOCs show an average completion rate of less than 15%. Some suggest that paid for courses have far higher success rates than free ones.

Image Credit: MoocMoocher

MOOCs are only one type of online course. More traditional facilitated online courses have much lower subscriber number, but in turn completion rates of 90% upwards are not uncommon.

For this article I have focused on paid-for South African options, offered by long-standing, accredited organisations.

Once more for the busy IT Manager there are benefits, but also pitfalls in this type of training. In my books the biggest two benefits are that these courses do provide professionally curated content and that they are facilitated by experts.

The downside is that academic courses tend to often be slightly removed from the reality and especially on technical topics are frequently outdated. A mitigating factor is that this is not as apparent for the more managerial subjects. Additionally, even traditional Universities are all the more regularly reviewing their content as they would otherwise be rendered obsolete by newer, online-only players.

Resources

Probably the most well-known distance learning organisation in South Africa is UNISA. It provides distance learning since 1946 and has also started providing short courses, but at present they are still not really applicable to our topic apart from maybe some business subjects. I have nevertheless included them here, as I presume that it is only a question of time until you will start to see them offering more applicable courses.

The most advanced offer by one of the big universities is at current UCT’s Get Smarteroffer and here specifically their IT Management short course.

Another one of the well-known private tertiary education providers for many years is Damelin. A few years ago they branched off their Damelin Correspondence Collegeand here they provide many courses. The one most applicable to IT Managers is the DCC Business Management Certificate (IT). But as with many more traditional courses it looks like basic introduction to IT component has just been bolted on to a business management certificate to make up this new course.

The University of Stellenbosch is also on a big drive towards online training, but as yet they provide more traditional tertiary subjects. They do, however, have a few gems like Future Studies in their catalogue as well as applicable courses in e.g Project Management. 

4. In-Person - Short Courses

The last two options are the more traditional, in-person options.

This section deals with short courses that are usually offered over a period of a day to several weeks. The latter are usually presented in either a single block or several shorter sessions.

In_class_learning-096177-edited.jpg

Most of these courses will offer some sort of certificate of completion or accreditation.

With the short courses you usually have a very specific focus on one subject – more focused on technology or alternatively a management focus.

The benefits here are that it only takes limited time and you additionally can focus on very specific topics of interest.

Resources

Virtually all universities (especially the respective business schools) and traditional training institutions do offer a multitude of short courses and their websites are quite exhaustive. I will not try to list them all here as they can easily be found with a short web search. Once more the vast majority of them will be more traditional.

Two that are moving into the “right” direction are the Universities of Pretoria (UP) and Stellenbosch (SUN).

UP’s Information Technology Management Programme specifically looks promising.

SUN also has a few interesting modules like Technology Management as part of their short course programme.

5. In-Person - Graduate/Post-Graduate Courses

I have found that all the more training institutions are recognising the need for blended business technology training.

Whilst part-time and especially full-time university studies are not for everyone, they are a definite option if you want to advance your career. The formal qualifications obtained can provide a huge stepping stone on your way up the corporate ladder. But be warned – graduate studies are not for the faint at heart and many do not manage the step from many years of full time employment to student life.

a. South Africa Institutions

Unfortunately, at present the focus in South Africa tends to be on either the pure technology with a light sprinkling of business subjects, or more likely a business course with a subject or two to introduce technology.

Image Credit: Universities South Africa

An exception seems to be the University of Pretoria who in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology have a dedicated Graduate School of Technology Management. They specifically offer Honours and Masters Degrees in Technology Management.

A limited list of other options that specifically include management and technology (again not necessarily in one course):

  • The South African Institute of Management provides some IT Management options.
  • Da Vinci is a school of management leadership focusing on the Management of People, Innovation, Technology and Business. 
  • CTI offer short learning programmes, higher certificates and degrees in the fields of Commerce, IT and Law on 12 campuses throughout South Africa.
  • CTU Training Solutions offer a variety of up-to-date IT, design and business programmes with national qualifications and international certifications at 15 campuses countrywide.

Another option that I have seen many IT Managers follow is to do a full- or part-time MBA program to add business acumen to their usually up to now more technical background. MBA.co.za is a centralised source of information about MBA studies in South Africa and a good starting point, should you be interested in pursuing this option.

If you do want to look in that direction, but do not want to do an MBA, there are also various options on offer from the business schools. The University Stellenbosch Business School e.g. is offering a Post Graduate Diploma in Business Management and Administration that can be taken either in person or using blended learning.

b. International Institutions

On the international stage, Business Technology Management is definitely an emerging discipline.

Canada seems to be the global leader.

A national committee of leading employers and university educators, facilitated by the Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow’s ICT Skills (the organization behind CareerMash), designed the game plan for the Business Technology Management (BTM) undergraduate degree as far back as 2009.

Image Credit: CareerMash

This was an evolution of the previous Management Information Systems qualification.

At current this degree is offered by 13 Canadian universities (details can be found on the CareerMash site). Each one has a slightly different focus, but in each one business and technology and management are inextricably linked.

As learn.org and study.com show, the term Business Technology Management as well as the job title of Business Technology Manager are also starting to take hold in the USA.

The NYU Tandon School of Engineering in New York does offer a BTM course: The School of Engineering's Bachelor of Science in Business and Technology Management (BTM) is oriented toward current and future high growth arenas. The program acknowledges that modern business leaders must be deeply familiar with technology and innovation, and work in diverse venues. The BTM program will give the business leaders of tomorrow distinct advantages towards getting prosperous and satisfying careers.  

Learning from Others

Up to now we have looked at content that was in one way or the other produced by someone for consumption by many.

Image Credit: flickr

The human is a social creature and we often learn best from others.

Everyone is my teacher. Some I seek. Some I subconsciously attract. Often I learn simply by observing others. Some may be completely unaware that I’m learning from them, yet I bow deeply in gratitude. – Eric Allen

We will thus for the next four “modes” of career development look at various options to learn from and with others.

6. Networking

In an educational setting, the concept of a “Personal Learning Network” or PLN is at current very topical and a PLN is a sort of personal community created by individuals, usually utilising social media. Virtually everybody today has networks of like-minded people connected by social media and a PLN is a more deliberate use of this. If this concept interests you, you can read up more at the following two links:

When we talk of communities or “communities of practice”, we often rather think of personal or virtual get-togethers of people around a specific topic or goal.

As mentioned in my introduction, one of the most common complaints of IT Leaders is that they feel isolated. And our research has found that there is a very limited number of possibilities for getting together and exchanging views (on-line or in person) when you reach a certain level in the IT organisation. Technical and especially software development user groups, meetups, vendor events, etc. can be found in abundance. Executives again have learned to get together regularly. But life is lonely at the levels in between.

Many IT managers will know SpiceWorks. They undoubtedly maintain the biggest online IT community with several million members globally. Once more there is very little business technology management content here and the focus is on technology and IT Management in the operational sense.

Communities like the itSMF (the South African Chapter unfortunately seems to meet very seldomly) and others do have chapters around the world, but again these are often very technical or confined to a specific topic.

We at Xuviate have seen that need and have in the Cape Town region created a vendor agnostic business technology management meetupRelevant IT – Western Cape.

If you are not in the Cape Town Region, do have a look on the meetup platform, facebook, LinkedIn or search on Google to determine if there is a similar/appropriate group in your area.

If you cannot find a group, why not start an own one if you feel strongly about it? You can gladly contact us for some advice.

I will allude to it more in my conclusion, but I would like to note here already that in contrast to most others, the participation in communities of practice is one of the few modes of career development that can at any time coexist with any of the others. 

7. Mentoring

Most successful people report that they have or have had at least one and often multiple mentors throughout their career. A mentor is someone you look up to, someone you would like to teach you. Mentors are more well-known in the entrepreneurial scene, but anybody can gain from a mentorship relationship and it becomes all the more common to have mentors at any stage of your career.

There are two major steps to acquiring a mentor: 1) identifying them and 2) asking them to be your mentor. Be ambitious – it is amazing how many people report again and again that it took them a lot of courage to ask a person they admire to be their mentor and that they never thought they would say yes, but they did. People love to help and often will appreciate to be asked. That said, do not be disappointed if the first one or two people you ask say no. If they do, it was in any way not to be.

Resources

Some resources to get you started:

8. Coaching

Coaching has in the past few years become a popular option for management development in companies and with astonishing results. There are numerous different nuances to coaching – personal, executive, team, industry specific, etc. Below are a few links to general articles as well as some random options.

Many companies will readily pay for the coaching as part of their training or professional development budget.

As coaching is very personal, you will have to find your coach yourself. Especially for any kind of 1-1 coaching it is important to meet them before you start a formal relationship or to start with a “probation period” so that you can get an idea whether the relationship can work.

Resources

Some resources and random links to a personal and a professional coach:

9. Peer Coaching and Mastermind Groups

I am splitting peer coaching from the other forms of coaching and combining it with Mastermind Groups. Although these two have some distinct differences, they do have the commonality that this is no one-on-one coaching, but is rather done in a group and more specifically in a group of people who are all on a specific level in the organisation or at a specific point in their career.

In bigger organisations, peer coaching is often done inside the organisation, but for SMEs this usually does not apply and then the group would consist of peers in an industry who are all relatively on the same level. For this article we would be specifically looking at options for IT Managers and people in similar positions in small and mid-sized organisations. Even here there are many differences and as mentioned IT Manager is not necessarily equal to IT Manager and thus group matching is imperative.

Peer Coaching

While managers certainly can perform coaching duties, often the best coaching is done by peers and colleagues. It can be done in a group setting or one-on-one and can be beneficial to both parties.

Masterminds

Mastermind groups are a special kind of peer groups. The Mastermind concept was already coined in 1937 by Napoleon Hill in his book Think and Grow Rich, where he observed that most rich and successful people did meet regularly with likeminded others, but it has stayed relatively unknown, thus I will spend a bit more time explaining it here.

Karyn Greenstreet of the Success Alliance probably defines mastermind groups the best:

Mastermind groups offer a combination of brainstorming, education, peer accountability and support in a group setting to sharpen your business and personal skills. A mastermind group helps you and your mastermind group members achieve success. Participants challenge each other to set powerful goals, and more importantly, to accomplish them. The group requires commitment, confidentiality, willingness to both give and receive advice and ideas, and support each other with total honesty, respect and compassion. Mastermind group members act as catalysts for growth, devil’s advocates and supportive colleagues. This is the essence and value of mastermind groups.

With the advent of online meetings, mastermind groups are becoming more and more sought after.

At Xuviate we have embraced this concept and are applying it specifically to SME IT Leaders. Three of the specific benefits of the Xuviate BTM Mastermind Groups are:

  • Participants from around the world are carefully matched into groups of 6 to 10 participants
  • The groups are facilitated by at least one industry veteran
  • The Relevant IT Methodology provides structure and guidance

"No two minds ever come together without thereby creating a third, invisible intangible force, which may be likened to a third mind [the master mind]." – Napoleon Hill

After looking at the four options to learn with and from others, we are now getting to my last option for career development:

10. Change Job

This option might come as a shock to some, but sometimes one lands at a dead-end in one’s career which cannot be overcome by staying at the current employer. I would obviously not suggest this option lightly, nor is it something that one should do too regularly in a career.

There are, however, times when an employee outgrows his or her current employer or vice versa or if you would like to make a career move that is not supported by the current employer. Here I would for example refer back to Live your Legend

In this age of digital disruption, technology becomes all the more important and some employers/executive teams just do not believe in the transformative potential of information technology. Whatever the IT Leaders do, they time and again run into a wall. Belief in the potential of IT is the first competency that any company needs to digitally transformIf it is determined that this is not a given, then this company will probably not be the correct place for a very ambitious IT Manager, who wants to create business value through the use of technology.

  • Xuviate has developed a BTM Planner - which includes a basic assessment - as well as a very detailed Gap Analyser tool. Both of these gauge the belief in IT and the ability for the executive team to be envisioned towards its potential in the very first question. 

Conclusion

We have now looked at the ten overarching options of career development of an IT Manager.

I would furthermore like to postulate that, with the exception of continued background reading and the participation in communities of practice, it is only possible to focus on ONE of the above “modes” of learning at any one time, and mostly even only one of the alternatives contained in it. Once you have decided on one of them, you will have to put all your focus into it to get the maximum value. It does not help to try and spread yourself too thinly. Each one of them will need a high investment of time to be truly effective. And don’t forget that, with the exception of full time study, your day to day job does go on.

This restriction to one option even applies to the change of job. Anybody who has been through this, will surely attest that they would not have had much time to e.g. start a new course in the proverbial first 100 days in a new job.

This need to focus then makes it all the more important to first take a step back, do your homework and find the option that most suits your personal learning preference as well as your current situation. Only then should you hone in.

I hope that I have given you some food for thought. I would love to further engage with anybody who would like to add to this topic and I am planning to regularly update this article to over time make it ever more pertaining to IT Managers in South Africa. Please do leave a comment below or contact me directly via our website or my LinkedIn account.

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About the Author

Digital Sensei | Abundance Thinker | Helping Mid-Market Companies Evolve through Digital Transformation - As trained Industrial Engineer with close on 25 years' experience as IT Professional and Business Executive in the mid-market IT industry, Mathias Tölken loves to share his experiences and expertise with others.

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