The Future of IT Skills: What You Need To Keep Your IT Career Alive

IT pros need to constantly update their skills in order to survive. Redmond asked experts -- and readers -- which skills and jobs have a solid future and which ones will crumble in the years to come. Here's what we found.

For a guy who lived in Ephesus nearly 2,500 years ago, Heraclitus had a pretty solid understanding of today's IT job market. The Greek philosopher posited that the universe is always in flux; he famously said, "The only thing that is constant is change."

And so it goes in the IT professional's career. Technology is constantly moving and changing, and IT pros must change with it. That means not just keeping up-to-date with technical skills, but also looking to see which jobs will offer stability -- for a few years, anyway -- and which will go the way of the hardware engineer. (And if you're a hardware engineer now, you'll definitely want to keep reading.)

For this article, we spoke to IT recruitment experts about which technologies will be the most important to know in the next five years or so and which job skills will prove most critical for keeping your career alive and moving forward. We also surveyed you, the Redmond reader, about your confidence in your skill set, what you might need to brush up on, and where you see the greatest potential for cultivating a lucrative career.

What we found was that webmasters, hardware engineers and even database administrators (DBAs) should look for new career paths, while software engineers, project managers, business analysts and people with expertise in the cloud are on the right track. We also confirmed that in terms of hard skills, expertise in virtualization and mobile technology will serve IT pros well going forward. And we learned that all IT pros should hone their business skills.

Hard Skills
They're like a company's earnings report or a baseball player's statistics. They're the bottom line, the hard facts -- the trophies on the shelf. At the heart of every IT pro's résumé are the hard skills -- the programming languages, the platform and product expertise -- that IT folks work so hard to hone. But, as any IT pro knows, those skills can atrophy without constant updating. It's no secret that IT folks need to keep their technical knowledge sharp. What can be more difficult to determine, however, is exactly which fields that knowledge should be in.

Experts say, though, that a few areas of technology stand out above others right now as must-haves or major differentiators on rŽsumŽs. This isn't by any means an exhaustive list, but it hits the highlights of where IT pros might want to look for their next training course.

Virtualization. There's no hotter buzzword in IT than this one. As vendors and IT shops fine-tune their cloud strategies, understanding the technology behind the cloud becomes more important than ever -- and much of that technology involves virtualization.

"When [companies] look at any technology, they look at the technology issues and the management issues of how you manage that particular technology," says Victor Janulaitis, CEO at Janco Associates Inc., a Nevada-based IT research and consulting firm. In order to work with the cloud, Janulaitis says, "You need to learn about virtualization. You also need to learn about the security aspects involved in that."

In a report published this year on the IT job market, Monster Intelligence, a unit of recruiting firm Monster Inc., identified both cloud computing services and virtualization as two of the highest technology priorities for CIOs. Tina Pero, lead recruiter of global product technology at New York-based Monster, says that while virtualization skills might not yet be an absolute must for IT pros, they're becoming increasingly important.

"From the work that I've done, it's not a requirement per se; it's more of a desirable skill," Pero says. She adds that the technology is young enough that it doesn't yet have a legion of experts. "It's still fairly new to a lot of people," she says.

Mobile technology. As the platform for workers' tasks moves from PCs and laptops to phones and tablets, demand for experts in mobile technology is rising. IT pros that can develop mobile applications, and deploy and support mobile technologies, should be well placed.

"Over the last few months, the number of people who access the Web via smartphones exceeded PCs. That's not going away," says John Reed, executive director at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology, based in Menlo Park, Calif. Reed adds that the mobile space represents the intersection of consumer technology and the enterprise. "As that technology continues to proliferate, the need for people to create, support and develop those technologies is going to be healthy," he says.

SQL, .NET and Java. Focusing too much on a particular technology or programming language is a bad idea, experts say. But for IT pros looking to bone up in a few specifics, these three areas lead the way. In Monster's IT jobs report, IT recruiters listed SQL, .NET and Java -- in that order -- as the hard skills most important to them.

Microsoft-focused IT folks who aren't too familiar with Java might want to learn it, experts say. "There are a lot of organizations that have applications written in Java," Reed says. "They need updates. That's what we see."

The Business-Savvy IT Pro
Of course, hard skills, while critical, are still commodities to some degree. Experts say that "soft" skills, such as communication, relationship management and especially business knowledge (expertise in finance, analysis or strategy), are more important than ever. These qualities make the difference between a promotion earned or lost, or an offer or rejection from a potential employer.

"That's something that tends to be lacking [in IT] -- business skills," Janulaitis says. "Technologists, unfortunately, end up being a commodity."

Reed notes that IT hiring managers are emphasizing business and interpersonal skills. "There's a premium placed by hiring managers for candidates that have business skills and communication skills," he says. "IT is no longer the techies in the back room. Technology professionals are now sitting in the boardroom."

But for those still stuck in the back room, what's the best way to acquire the "soft" skills needed to impress a boss or a potential boss? Some IT pros, Janulaitis says, have taken a direct -- albeit expensive and time-consuming -- route. "People with technology skills have gone off and gotten an MBA," he says. "It's a good rounding-out skill and something that can provide them some leverage when the economy is down."

But an MBA is a major investment, and it might not make sense for a lot of IT pros. "If there's an IT professional looking to get into management, I can see the MBA working to their benefit," Pero says. "It depends on what direction they want to take their career."

An MBA isn't the only way for IT pros to break out of the server room and into the boardroom. "Are you asking for opportunities to interface with the business side of the house?" Reed asks IT pros. "If you find you're having limited to no exposure with those groups, find ways to get in front of them. That's the first thing. Volunteer to take on additional responsibilities in addition to traditional technology work. [If the] company's looking for a task force to tackle a particular issue, be the first to raise your hand and say, 'I'll do that.'"

Roads to Ruin
So, what does the wise IT pro, who has the right hard and soft skills, do with those abilities? Our experts identified a few categories that should explode over the next five years or so -- and others that are likely to fizzle or disappear. Let's start with the duds:

Hardware engineer. In the Monster IT jobs report, a mere 3 percent of employers reported looking for hardware engineers -- compare that to 45 percent looking for software engineers and 15 percent looking for a systems analyst. Now, more than ever before, hardware is a commodity in the enterprise, and those who specialize in working with it are less valuable.

"We're seeing less of a trend in hiring computer operators or hardware engineers," Pero says. "I recommend [IT pros] start exploring other areas."

The good news is that not many IT pros still identify themselves as hardware engineers -- only 4 percent in Monster's study reported looking for jobs in that category.

Webmaster. The word even sounds kind of '90s, and the job title is certainly dated. Webmaster jobs still exist, but they're on the way out. Web architects, who delve deeper into online technology than a webmaster would, and mobile-app developers are supplanting the old guardian of the Web site.

"The area that's the least hot is the good, old-fashioned webmaster," Janulaitis says. "It's a commodity skill. It's not new and different anymore. Now you've got Web architects and people who are doers as opposed to administrators."

DBA. The DBA role isn't going anywhere -- how could it, with data expanding and data leaks becoming more embarrassing and happening more and more frequently? By job title, the DBA is alive and well. But the nature of the job is changing, and those who don't change with it will find themselves left behind.

"The classic [IT pro] responsible for making sure the SQL or Oracle database is backed up and operational -- that's a passŽ skill," Janulaitis says.

Reed echoes that sentiment, noting that today's DBAs are more than just database guards. Today's DBA needs to know how to protect data and have expertise not only with specific database types but in cloud technology, security, backup and recovery, disaster planning and data deduplication, among other areas.

"What a lot of people think about when they think DBA, they're thinking about the DBA of years gone by," Reed says. "Today, they have a lot of other skills [such as] cloud computing and security. It's a public relations disaster for any organization when they've had a data leak."

The old-school gatekeeper DBA is a dying breed, Reed says. "If that's all you do, you're going to be behind the curve," he says. "If you haven't picked up [the right] skills, it's a bad place to be."

Reed adds that for DBAs whose skills are up to snuff, the evolving job category is one of the hottest for a few years to come: "Data is growing exponentially," he says. In fact, ads for database developers and DBAs represents 10 percent of the total number of ads in Monster's jobs report, making DBA one of the more sought-after employee types in Monster's study.

Pathways to Success
Software engineer. Some job categories will probably be hot for years. One is software engineer. In Monster's report, software engineers were by far the most sought-after employees among IT recruiters. Monster's Pero says that trend is evident inside her company's own operation as well. "We're always going to hire software engineers," she says. "The bulk of our hiring is always going in our engineering group."

The same goes for systems architects and analysts, who continue to be in high demand. "Enterprise architecture is a hot skill," Janulaitis says.

But developing technologies (the cloud, specifically) are opening new categories of jobs that experts say are catching fire. And some old standards are in for a revival. Our experts shared some of their other choices for hottest emerging job possibilities:

Support and Help Desk. This might sound like a function that long ago left American shores, but our observers say it's due for a comeback -- with some caveats. First off, the outsourcing trend is reversing itself now, so some American companies are now hiring help desk employees again.

"What people are starting to look at is outsourcing to a provider who's based in India doesn't make a lot of sense," Janulaitis says.

Monster's report doesn't paint a particularly rosy picture for help desk jobs, but Reed says that demand is increasing as companies try to catch up with layoffs among support staff. "There's such a huge, pent-up demand for talent. Companies basically didn't replace when they lost people. The number of help desk people to users they were supporting became very strained."

Of course, help desk jobs -- while potentially numerous in years to come -- lack security. Plus, Reed notes these jobs are becoming more sophisticated. The base-level employee who tells user after user to try turning a PC or printer or cable modem off and back on likely won't have a long career trajectory. But help desk employees with sophisticated knowledge of systems and platforms should find plenty of opportunities.

"If you're a desktop support professional who doesn't have a lot of other skills, those roles are going to be more difficult to secure," Reed says. "Individuals who are that first level of support will be at risk. What many organizations have moved to is self-service and help desk level two. Help desk level-one individuals have got to build other skills."

Cloud outsourcing manager. It might not exist as a job title -- program manager or even relationship manager are more common -- but whatever employers end up calling people who interface with cloud providers, they'll likely be hiring plenty in years to come.

That, by the way, is the kind of outsourcing we're talking about -- moving operations to a cloud vendor rather than offshore. Sure, cloud computing providers promise soup-to-nuts IT operations. But companies that use them will still need to hire people to keep vendors honest and negotiate contracts and other agreements. This is an area where "soft" business skills match with hard IT skills. And it's poised for huge growth.

"The [hiring] areas that are the most active are cloud and cloud outsourcing," Janulaitis says. "Cloud vendors and providers, they end up being salespeople. Internally, a CIO is going to say, 'I need somebody who can manage [a vendor relationship].' They don't want to get someone from a vendor because a vendor is going to try to sell them their particular product or service."

Negotiation skills are critical for cloud outsourcing managers, Janulaitis says, as is knowledge about data security and privacy. "The contract is the most important thing," he says, "[along with] transferring of data and ownership of data. That's a very large administrative issue that you want to deal with."

Business analyst. It sounds like something an accountant or finance professional would do, but increasingly companies are calling on IT pros to look at how their departments affect the bottom line. This role is not unlike that of a cloud outsourcing manager, except most interaction happens within the company rather than with outside vendors.

"[You need] someone who can be that liaison between business and IT," Reed says, "a person who goes out and meets with the user, then gives [information] back to technical people." Skills with business intelligence applications are particularly important for this role, as are communication skills.

Project manager. The classic job title has more significance these days than it might have had years ago. It's not just for IT projects anymore. Like business analysts, IT pros who are project managers now deal with plenty of stakeholders outside the IT department.

The nature of projects is changing, too. Sure, there are classic technology deployments and rollouts, but IT over the last few years has taken a more strategic role in the business as a whole, contributing to revenue and profit rather than just trying to keep its own costs in line. IT pros with project-management skills can now insert themselves into projects as valuable assets rather than obligatory hangers-on. They actively participate in adding to the final dollar value of a project.

Project management is also poised for growth. As the economy begins to ease, Reed says, companies are looking to catch up on projects they delayed or abandoned during the worst of the recession's crunch. "A lot of companies had IT initiatives that got shelved for 18 to 24 months," he says. "Now a lot of those organizations are taking those projects and saying, 'Let's get them rolling.' Project management is very strong. IT runs off of projects."

Better Days Ahead
Although there's trepidation about jobs, the outlook for IT hiring is positive. Janco reported in a June press release that the sector added 10,000 jobs in May and that employers are hiring people back into positions that disappeared during the recession.

Monster's report, intended to forecast the job market in 2011, also emphasized positives:

"Layoffs have diminished and hiring is on the rise," the report noted. "The IT space continues to grow and evolve, penetrating across industries, driving corporate efficiencies, and leading companies to competitive and innovative gains."

Plus, Redmond's own annual salary survey showed increases in base salary, raises and bonuses for this year compared to 2010 (see the August cover story, "Bigger Bucks"). Even so, IT professionals would do well to remember Heraclitus and his proclamation that nothing is constant except change. It certainly fits the state of the IT industry and job market. And the best way to master change is to be prepared for it.

"If you have not continued to invest in your craft, to stay abreast of new technologies, you're already at risk of being antiquated," Reed says. "Technology changes. It's always changing."


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