Frances B. Craig always figured she would rise to the top.
But it took longer than the onetime computer programmer expected -- and even then, Craig had yet to figure out her most important career lesson.
"I never realized you had to have a strategy for getting ahead," said Craig, now chief executive of Unanet Technologies in Fairfax.
Craig and other executives shared their stories -- and urged women and minorities interested in technology work to plot out their goals -- at a meeting last week on how companies can recruit and promote people from diverse backgrounds.
Each of the panelists agreed that candidates who use a potent mix of smarts and personal connections will get ahead faster than those who rely on merit alone to advance.
"You need to build alliances," said Sally Turner, business development director at American Management Systems Inc. "Ask yourself, 'Who is it I need to get to know and how am I going to get to know them?' Otherwise, you are going to end up doing your job and nothing more will happen."
Added Katherine Tobin, who researches women's career progression at Catalyst Inc. in New York: "Networks are absolutely critical for success. These networks are important because the tech industries are not as secure in terms of professional structure. People build teams based on who they worked with two projects ago."
Some companies are helping their workers create paths to progression by supplying formal mentors and chances to network.
Eddie Pate, a diversity manager at Microsoft Corp., said he has developed a "mentoring circle," consisting of a dozen protégés and two or three mentors. The circle is a place where people can ask questions and exchange information confidentially. It's particularly useful to convene such groups in technology firms, where few women and minorities are in senior positions, Pate said.
"Having that kind of sponsorship is key," he said. "Particularly for women and underrepresented minorities, you really need to search people out." For others in search of tips about how to get ahead, the answer is in the hundreds of professional groups around the nation in fields including personal computers, database management and technology marketing.