Climbing the IT Ladder: Career Advice from Experts

By Deborah Rothberg  |  Posted 2006-05-25

Climbing the IT Ladder: Career Advice from Experts

Do you have what it takes to move upward in your IT career? Or enough juice in the skills department to weather an outbreak of outsourcing?

Several longtime watchers of the IT jobs market say they believe tech workers impressions of whats needed to succeed may be out of date, and offered eWEEK some tips on how to have the right stuff.

The IT landscape has changed dramatically since the period of the dot-com boom and bust. According to hiring professionals, the skill set expected of IT workers barely resembles that of 10 or even five years ago.

Technical certifications have been de-emphasized, and there has been an increased focus on skills not traditionally associated with IT—such as business and project management skills—leaving many IT professionals bewildered about what they need to do to advance their careers.

According to job watchers, two concurring trends, the imminent retirements of the baby boomer work force and a decline in the number of college students focusing their studies on computers and technology, have the potential to drain the IT work force during the next decade.

Meanwhile, unemployment in the tech sector is at an all-time low.

"Trend No. 1 today is that the technology labor market is very tight," said Scot Melland, president and CEO of, based in Urbandale, Iowa.

"With 2.5 percent unemployment among IT professionals, which is virtually zero, theres more technology employment than there was at the peak of the Internet boom. The reason is continued demand from private and public companies," he told eWEEK.

A report issued April 19 by business advisory firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu said that a majority of CEOs are finding it increasingly difficult to locate the right technology hires. As a result, companies are offering additional perks such as stock options, additional vacation days, training and development, and flexible work hours.

The tightness of the IT labor market has led many companies to shift their focus from hiring to retaining their employees, through offers of perks such as flex time and telecommuting and opportunities such as training.

In order to retain the best IT talent, 63 percent of CIOs provided their IT workers with professional training and development, and 47 percent said they offered flexible schedules, according to a survey released March 29 by Robert Half Technology.

Despite the current positive market picture, workers in todays market will need certain skills to make it up the IT ladder, some employment experts said, giving tips on certification, necessary skill sets for the future and which skills can weather outsourcing. The best news for many IT geeks: A flawless chip shot on the greens is optional.

Move beyond the letters after your name

"You have to look beyond certifications," said David Foote, co-founder and president of Foote Partners, a New Canaan, Conn., analyst firm that publishes quarterly IT salary and job market data. "Put it this way: Vendors created this certification industry to sell products. Its very important to them that it remains viable. But if you let vendors decide what constitutes talent, youre absolving yourself of responsibility."

"We hear about certified workers whose certifications have allowed them to keep their jobs, but we also hear about uncertified workers who have managed their careers well. Its the former who are on the ropes right now. They spent too much time getting certified and less time managing their careers," Foote said.

According to Foote Partners Q1 2006 Hot Technical Skills and Certifications Pay Index, released April 25, pay premiums for non-certified IT skills grew three times faster than for certified ones in a six-month period spanning 2005-2006.

Foote argued that the IT industry has moved far beyond many certifications, which held value through the recession because they could be used to help justify the cost of keeping an employee on board to the person controlling the budgets.

"But, it doesnt necessarily attest to their technical acumen," Foote said. "…If I can find someone with the industry skills and the confidence that they understand our customers and what we want to do in the future, not having a certification is not an issue."

Pick up "outsource-proof" core skills

Melland said the greatest job opportunities will be in five core technology skill areas: software development or programming, database administration, project management, systems administration and network development.

"They are all in demand today and will continue to be. If you have one of these core skills, youre in good shape," he said.

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Underlying trends within the core skills have led to strong areas of specialization.

"It is a good idea for information architect or a systems administrator to get experience in Linux or open-source technologies. Based on job postings, this trend is very strong," Melland said.

Boost project management skills

An outcome of the outsourcing movement is that there is an increased demand for managers and project managers.

"Companies continue to implement new technologies, and this can take place in-house or offshore, and they need a project manager here that will make that implementation successful. If you are looking for an area of safety in the outsourcing world, one area is project management," Melland said.

"There are many jobs posted for project managers that have strong IT backgrounds, this is a skill set very much in demand… People with these skill sets are outsource-proof, or at the very least, very valuable to another company," he continued.

Boost business skills

Without fail, industry experts recommended that IT professional increase their business knowledge.

"What happened is, technology is now embedded in all parts of companies business operations. As a result, a thriving tech professional in a tech company needs to understand business," Melland said.

Citing a fundamental change in the IT skills and capabilities desired by employers, a study released April 4 by SIM (the Society for Information Management), a professional society of IT executives, identified various business capabilities as five of the top 10 skills that are critical to keep in-house between now and 2008.

"Weve moved far beyond the need to have IT in line with business; IT now is the business. IT people are doing operations jobs. Theyre hybrid workers," Foote said.

Target integration skills

The aftereffects of corporate buyouts can provide an opportunity for savvy IT managers, the jobs pros said.

"Youre going to see a lot more mergers and acquisitions in the next five years because of the number of small, bright companies that lack the ability to scale. They have to sell themselves to people who can, which will mean that professionals will need more and more integration skills. These are the analysts and architects," Foote said.

Beef up communication skills

The last few years have seen a greater emphasis on the communication skills or "soft skills" of IT professionals, as "the days of working in a dark room at the end of the hall are over," Melland said.

As IT professionals come out from behind their desks, they need more than ever to be able to communicate with the rest of the company.

"Companies want someone who can speak to them in a language they understand; someone with good customer service skills," said Nancy Moran, vice president of client and employee relations at CCN, an IT work force solutions provider based in New York.

What about linking on the links?

Everyone knows that golf is the unofficial sport of the business world. Many have joked that board meetings merely confirm decisions that were actually made on the golf links. Though IT managers are not usually considered part of the golf-playing corporate elite, should they learn the game as they sharpen their business skills?

"As IT aligns itself more to the business, golf is the perfect opportunity for IT professionals to get the ear of management. IT is definitely moving away from the development-type geeks to actual strategic partners with the business," Moran said.

Though not everyone agrees on the importance of golf, they agree on the principle of getting comfortable around management.

"You dont need to learn how to play golf. The underlying message is that you need to understand the business that youre part of, but you dont need to do this by playing golf with the sales guys," Melland said.

"But you do need to be able to converse on business issues," he advised.

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