Technology certifications matter. Or maybe they dont. Pay is up for IT workers, but many havent recovered the wages that typified the late 90s. There arent enough computer science majors in the United States, but the jobs held by the ones we do have here could be outsourced. Corporations want M.B.A. technology managers, but there are shortages of specialized technology skills. Meanwhile, the image of the profession is in the dumps.
Those rip-and-read headlines culled from eweek.com over the last month paint a confusing picture. Pick a survey—for example, an Aug. 2 compensation study released by Foote Partners, an IT research company in New Canaan, Conn. Wait a few days, and theres bound to be another take on the technology work force that will pop up to counter it.
Why the confusion? Technology and business are changing as they grapple with outsourcing and lick their wounds from the tech boom. IT jobs can easily be outsourced. The truth is that IT is just not valued that highly by the people in charge—rather, its still being viewed as a cost center by many companies that focus more on business.
With all this structural change, the vision of what an IT professional is supposed to be should be following suit. “The old model of IT doesnt work anymore,” said Steve Novak, CIO at Kirkland & Ellis, a Chicago-based law firm.
While that model is still being sorted out, Novak, along with other CIOs interviewed by eWEEK, is on the lookout for the holy grail—a designer IT person who can adapt and thrive in changing environments and still remain valuable. Meanwhile, its in the best interest of the IT worker to embody those traits that will woo the likes of Novak.
So whats the perfect genetic blend necessary to build a designer IT person? Would you know where to start? To be sure, the ultimate IT worker doesnt exist; he or she is a figment of CIOs collective imagination. He or she is a blend of desirable traits that managers would select if they could cook up test-tube workers. Nevertheless, these traits are on the radar when candidates are interviewed for an open position and are equally weighted with IT preoccupations such as certifications and experience.
eWEEK spoke to a slew of CIOs and asked them to concoct the designer IT worker. The common thread: Traits are more enduring than specific skills. The good news: None of the following traits is impossible to attain. But, if youd prefer sitting in a dark room and resetting passwords to learning your companys business inside out and communicating with others in the organization, it may be a challenge. Thats because the designer IT person …
… Enjoys light
Technology workers are expected to be able to work outside their comfort zone without stuffing their hands in their pockets and mumbling about rack servers or rolling their eyes when asked to reset a forgotten password. More than a techie, he or she is a meta-techie, having a strong technical base coupled with the ability to explain to nontechies why technology is important. “Even a technologist at the end of the day gets stuff done through people. Computers cant do this for you,” said Gerald Shields, CIO and senior vice president of Aflac, an insurance company in Columbus, Ga.
In sum: Walking around the workplace and talking to brethren is in. The conversationally challenged, jargon-using guy is out as companies grow increasingly impatient with that model. “You need to be able to communicate at all levels. You need to be able to hold a productive conversation with the first-level technician as well as the business owner, both in terms they understand,” said Novak. “You can no longer go to that closet, shut the door and work. You have to be able to interact and communicate with everyone.”
Novak attributes the change in personality expectations to a change in business models where technology no longer is a free-standing department. “The old model of IT was hierarchical. Now, its more Web-style, where all levels interact with all levels. You dont implement systems today that are free-standing, like a mainframe, and your department doesnt function independently,” said Novak.
An ability to mix with the masses is considered more than a requirement today; rather, its a ticket to get ahead. “Beyond a technical base, communications skills go across positions, career levels, across companies,” said Kate Kaiser, professor of IT at Milwaukee-based Marquette University and head researcher at the Society of Information Management, or SIM, an organization of IT managers in Chicago.
Your mission: Meet nontech co-workers.
… Isnt addicted to acronyms
Long seen as a fail-safe method to improve job security and employment opportunities in the post dot-com bust era, large numbers of IT professionals stocked up on the letters after their names after the market crashed. Years later, the value of certifications in the absence of requisite skills and experience is held in question, as some consider them more of a crutch than a catch.
Yet, it doesnt mean that certified skills have lost all value, as many CIOs see them as a bonus when the job candidate is already qualified. “Certifications are like the whipped cream and the cherry. Its something nice to have but not a must-have. What they have done in the past and how theyve done it is more than the certification. But as a quantifier, it helps because it says, Im passionate enough to invest my time in getting certified,” said James Ingle, CIO of Revere Group, a Chicago-based global business and IT solutions consulting company.
Indeed, many CIOs use certifications as a passion gauge. “Im always looking for people who are willing to learn. The fact that you went through the rigor of learning something new will impress me. If youre using it as a shield, it wont help, but as a tool in your tool kit, it will,” said Stephen Pickett, CIO of Penske, in Reading, Pa., and president of SIM.
The rub with certifications, however, is that they can be viewed as a crutch if you have too many. “If I see someone who has a lot of certifications, Im not sure that theyre proficient in all of them. Im more interested in the work history, and Im going to pick the guy with four years experience over the guy with two years experience and a Cisco [Systems] certification,” said Aflacs Shields.
Your mission: Balance your certifications. You need them to keep current with new technology but realize theyre not what Ingle describes as the “x-factor,” the intangible that “you always know when you see it.”
… Thinks global
Youd be hard-pressed to find a low-level or midlevel technology professional who has good things to say about offshore outsourcing. Yet to truly succeed in a market where global relationships are gaining momentum, you have to adopt a new mantra: Globalization can be good for me.
Its a tough pill to swallow, but many CIOs view offshore outsourcing as a key way for the United States to remain viable. “For the U.S. to be competitive, they have to tap into global resources, and the technology available today allows us to do this. You need to be able to understand whats available and how you go about crafting an efficient use of it,” said Novak.
In other words, repeat the mantra: Globalization can be good for me. “Its more than offshoring. Are these positions that were once in the U.S. now overseas? Yes. But, its creating new positions in the U.S. for individuals who can develop their skills [at] managing these types of environments,” said Novak.
According to Novak, the best opportunities await those folks who want to be project managers, project coordinators and resource managers. The game: Position yourself as the liaison in outsourced relationships. “The best way to outsource-proof yourself is to know how to manage an outsource relationship, giving yourself a skill that cannot be outsourced. You have to have a good grasp of financial principles, sourcing strategies and contracts,” said Pickett.
Numerous CIOs agree that the IT professional who views himself or herself as a potential liaison in the outsourced relationship will find no shortage of career opportunities. “The more commoditized skills sets are more easily outsourced or offshored, but the technology still needs to be applied to the people and the organization. Whether the technology is done in or outside the organization, the liaison role is critical,” said Ingle.
CIOs also encouraged IT pros to recognize which skills companies valued too much to outsource.
“The other thing that you typically cant outsource is a good internal knowledge of an organization. There are things that a corporation is willing to share with an outsider and there are things that they wont. If you understand this, youll become a valuable contributor and theyre going to hold onto you,” Pickett said.
Thinking globally about IT means thinking the way the IT manager does and not limiting the scope of a project to what is currently available.
“Outsourcing just means that someone else is doing your work. There are a great number of job opportunities in sourcing if you think of it as being a source for someone domestic or offshore,” Kaiser said.
Your mission: Work toward becoming a project manager. And repeat: Globalization can be …
… Has the B-gene
Really want to become outsourcing proof? Know your business—inside and out—and understand terms such as “internal rate of return,” “hurdle rate” and “operating margin.” “The other thing that you typically cant outsource is a good internal knowledge of an organization,” said Pickett.
Of course to know your business, it helps to know about business. Business skills, once considered the sole jurisdiction of the bean counters, are now downright essential for technology professionals. “Theres a change happening. You used to need a stronger base of technical skills, and now you need to understand business skills. The more you understand the company where you work, from its customers to its employees, the better off youll be,” said Kaiser.
Acquiring the B-gene can pretty much ensure IT survival. In fact, an evolved technology worker often has a business degree. “The tech is sometimes the easiest part. Depending on what the technology is, its not very hard to find someone with [whatever] aspect you are looking for. But to find someone who understands the business aspects and what needs to be worked through is rare. Its much harder to change business processes than to create technology solutions. Technology for the sake of technology is not the answer,” said Ingle.
According to CIOs, companies comprise two types of individuals—those who know business and those who know technology. Few know both. But if youre the bridge between the two, suddenly youre valuable. “A lot of times, IT does a lot of really good things for business, but nothing gets communicated to the business side. On the business side, theres often not a deep understanding of technology, and IT needs to bridge the chasm and be able to explain how it moves the business forward. Nobody really cares that you put in a really cool, superfast LAN, but youre going to get funding for new technologies by explaining the business savings of the one before,” said Novak.
The IT professional with a good business mind is able to explain technology in terms of savings and productivity rather than in terms of it being “cool” or “exciting.” By being able to communicate technology in business terms, an archetypical IT pro will be able to manage projects in a manner that will benefit the organization as a whole. Theyre able to anticipate where problems may occur and accommodate for them in advance.
Your mission: Get business knowledge, and at least learn the lingo and why its important.
… Can adapt
CIOs across the board said they wanted people on their teams who could adapt to anything coming down the pike with minimal static. In other words, dont complain. Roll with the changes.
“Be a good corporate citizen. Be the good guy who has something good to say about everything. Negativism should be limited to proposing positive ways to deal with a situation,” said Pickett.
In fact, technology professionals who can work through distractions often can excel through their sheer ability to manage change. “There tends to be a lot of background noise. You need to be able to cut through that and get to the core of the problem and move on,” said Novak.
Meanwhile, with mergers and acquisitions becoming increasingly common, IT workers are likely to have more demands on them than ever before. “Im looking for endurance, especially if you are working for a large corporation with thousands of pieces of equipment, and youll have more problems than you can say grace over,” said Shields.
Your mission: Embrace change or at least find a way to cope with it. “The life cycle of a technical solution is about 18 months on average,” said Novak. “A good IT person will be adaptive and embrace continuous change.”
Tech Workers by the Numbers
Portion of IT workers who receive extra pay for specific certified and uncertified skills, according to a study released Aug. 2 by Foote Partners.
Tech company turnover in Q2 2006. Comparatively, nontech company turnover was at 19.3 percent in Q2, according to a survey released July 24 by Radford Surveys and Consulting.
Job cuts in the tech sector in Q2 2006, down from 39,379 in Q1 and the lowest number in six years, according to a July 13 report from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global outplacement consultancy.
Percentage of overall company revenue in 2006 allocated to IT operational budgets. Thats up from 1.7 percent in 2005, according to a survey released July 10 by research company Computer Economics.
Portion of the IT work force happy with their jobs in July, up from 71 percent in June, according to Hudson Employment Index for IT Workers data released Aug. 2.
Combined salaries of the Top 10 CIOs, according to Baselines 2006 CIO Compensation Ranking, released Aug. 1.
Source: eWEEK reporting