IT is a relatively new field, and its demands are constantly shifting. The IT department of five or 10 years ago does not resemble the IT department of 20 years ago. The IT department of 40 years ago didn’t exist.
For IT professionals, keeping up is a daunting task. Over the years, they’ve been told to be everything from techies who work out of the dark room at the end of the hall to business folks in suits, driving the organization’s growth strategy. They’ve been told to stock up on as many certifications as they could, and then were told that many of the certifications weren’t more than expensive pieces of paper. They’ve been told to get really good at one technology, and then were told that being good at only one technology was a career-limiting move.
With so many moving targets, it is no wonder that IT professionals can suffer from an exhaustion that comes from having to constantly remarket themselves as the IT worker du jour.
When CIOs and IT managers are asked what they measure their IT hires by, their answers are surprisingly abstract. Few talk about, say, SAP skills or specific business skills-but not because they don’t want those skills.
Simply put, CIOs and IT managers want from their staff more enthusiasm, more flexibility and a better ability to execute. Few of the people eWEEK interviewed for this story felt they had this ideal mix in their departments, but they were more than willing to build it themselves.
The New IT Benchmarks
One priority that will never change is that CIOs and IT managers want their departments to be filled with people who are passionate about technology.
“For me, the primary determinate is the geek factor,” said Steven Barnes, the director of systems and IT security at a Fortune 1000 retail company. “I want to know how much do they love the technology and if it is a major part of their daily lives.”
That said, CIOs and IT managers no longer need pure techies-people who can solve technical problems brilliantly but might fail to fulfill internal business needs.
“When IT was about technology, you just did what the vendor needed,” said David Foote, co-founder and CEO of Foote Partners, which monitors IT benchmarks and skills pay. “But then the world started asking for more than just technical people.”
Yet solid technology knowledge has not gone the way of the dinosaur. Instead, organizations are hoping for IT professionals whose knowledge of technology is almost part of their DNA, and who have the ability to make that translate into business language.
“[Organizations aren’t] looking for the usual list of soft skills, such as leadership qualities and the ability to work on teams,” said Foote. “They want repetitive training like in the Olympics-to do something enough times that you no longer need to think about it. … And [they’re looking] not just for people with technical chops, but with good instincts about your industry who can get your business into new markets … and be able to build the right technology to get you there.”
This kind of flexibility can take the IT professional in and out of the IT department-through business, marketing or any other group that benefits from technology, all in an effort to make it more applicable. This requires a person who cannot only multitask but can also think in multiple ways.
“One of the things is nimbleness of mind,” said Sean Ebner, regional vice president for the Western region of Technisource, an IT staffing company. “What I’m seeing from IT managers and senior managers and IT executives is that they want an ability to traverse the organization, with both a deep knowledge of certain platforms but also an ability to understand different aspects of that life cycle, from testing to implementation.”
IT recruiters say these can be the hardest people to find.
“We are finding that there is an ever-increasing scarcity of not just technical people, but people who have the competency to learn the things that they’re going to need to learn next,” added Ebner.
The New IT Benchmarks
Since 2001, IT professionals have faced numerous setbacks, from the significant loss of jobs during the dot-com bust to cost-cutting measures that have led to the outsourcing of thousands of technology jobs. This has taken a toll on morale in many IT departments and has left CIOs longing for the days when their staffers were more enthusiastic about their field.
“[CIOs] want to see the enthusiasm of 10 years ago,” said Alex Cullen, vice president and research director at Forrester Research. “They’ve got a layer of people that are being very flexible-that’s their management ranks-and they’ve got a layer of people who have been very fixed in terms of what they do, and they’re getting older. They’re not as dynamic in terms of trying new things. CIOs want to rejuvenate their departments-it’s not about youth but flexibility and an element of excitement.”
While CIOs understand that they cannot wave a magic wand and make their employees thrilled to be there, they’re hoping to find this energy among recent college graduates.
“Where they’re looking for this is the new hiring pool-the less experienced, those in that one- to three-year range of experience,” said Cullen.
Some CIOs are hoping to draw fresh faces and ideas into the IT department by bringing people in from other parts of the company.
“Some of them are looking in terms of improving the business/IT rotation-doing more with people on the business side to get them moving in and out-something we actually feel companies aren’t doing enough of. But they’re looking for new people in their organization who have that spark,” said Cullen.
The New IT Benchmarks
In the years after the dot-com bust, many IT professionals stocked up on letters after their names in an effort to improve their job security. Their managers, who in turn used these accreditations to assure their value to the organization’s penny pinchers, encouraged this.
But when speaking to CIOs, IT managers and analysts about what counts and what doesn’t on an IT professional’s r??«sum??« nowadays, one thing that stands out is an almost universal agreement that IT certifications don’t matter the way they used to.
“While education, training and certifications definitely add credibility to a candidate’s claims, there are a lot of other aspects that should be considered while hiring,” said Sri Chikka, a project manager and senior solution architect in the Dayton, Ohio, area.
Barnes, the systems and IT security director at a Fortune 1000 retail company, expressed frustration after hiring candidates who looked good on paper but were unable to show more than book knowledge of technology skills.
“Certifications count for zero,” he said. “Bachelor’s degree in IS, zero. High scores on tests just mean you are good at taking tests. From my experience, people who only know tech from what they learned in a classroom will never be a great asset. They may be good at what they know, but they will never exceed their training.”
IT recruiters find that experience and a history of executing projects successfully rank higher on the wish list of prospective employers than certifications.
“Certifications are not as in vogue as they once were,” said Technisource’s Ebner. “PMPs [Project Management Professional certifications] are nice to have on a r??«sum??«, but when [companies are] looking for someone to run a project, experience is more important. At a lower level, the certifications are more important because it’s a way to filter. If [a potential employee works] in a technical environment such as Microsoft, that A+ certification is a way to measure their skills,” he said, referring to the CompTIA A+ base-level technician certification.
Foote, whose management consultancy has been tracking the value of IT certifications for years, notes that a shift away from certifications coincides with a bigger focus on getting the job done.
“The hiring focus is much more about instincts and less about technology,” he said. “The technology instinct is what matters. These days, a lot of our research has been heading toward the fact that it’s mostly about execution.”
The right people basically get stuff done, Foote explained, and become a predictable executor of just about anything a company needs.
The United States is on the verge of a labor shortage: The baby boomer generation is getting ready to exit the work force, while Generations X and Y lack the numbers to fill their shoes.
This situation is exacerbated in IT, where dwindling enrollments in technology schools and a lack of confidence in the field have caused many technically inclined young adults to steer their careers elsewhere.
Despite this, the need for skilled computer professionals is going nowhere. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the job market for computer professionals will grow at a record pace through 2016, with some categories-such as network systems and data communications professionals-increasing by more than 50 percent.
CIOs say that if they can’t find experienced IT professionals to bring into their organizations, they’re more than willing to grow their own talent. Furthermore, they feel this will be their best chance to get the talent they want.
“Trying to bring in all of the things you need from the outside doesn’t always work,” said Ebner. “But if you bring them in and grow your own, you’ve got a better chance of succeeding. It allows companies to find someone who is bright, and in one year they’ll have 80 or 90 percent of what we’ll need for them. If you bring in one bright person, they can grow and learn and mentor the next group.”
Indeed, companies are increasingly looking to the younger generation for a blend of technical and business knowledge, as well as soft skills, to fill the IT ranks.
“The challenge for IT executives is having the people who understand tech, culture and business,” Ebner said. “They’re looking in their entry-level programs for people who show a propensity early in the cycle.”
Foote said he believes that younger professionals naturally think about IT differently, but that this has more to do with the evolution of the field than with any bad training on more senior IT professionals’ parts.
“The younger people naturally think about IT differently,” said Foote. “It’s simply cultural, as well as the natural evolution of IT in terms of blending into their companies and no longer being seen as a classic service organization. Older IT workers weren’t trained in this way as much. What’s helping the shift along is that younger workers have changed the way IT is perceived.”
Saif Siddiqui, IT director of Blackfire Technologies of Queensland, Australia, a hardware reseller, said that, more than anything else, he looks for balance in candidates, as well as an ability to fit in with his existing team.
“There is always going to be a balance between experience, relevant or not, and qualifications for the job, with the weighting varying based on the specific role in hand,” said Siddiqui. “You’ve also got to think about what the individual will bring to your team and company moving forward-personality, vision, outlook and fit all make a difference.”