IT skills: Jumping the chasm

The current tech talent gap is just the first sign of a coming revolution in the IT jobs market. Here's how to secure your footing now and brace for what's ahead.

Credit: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Urbaniak knows that if he's going to be that guy, he needs to stay current in all the technologies his employer uses. "I'm a generalist. I need to keep my skills up. It's just what our industry demands," he explains.

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An IT career: Would you recommend it?

Computerworld asked several IT professionals in a range disciplines to ponder the following question: Knowing all that you know now, would you advise your son or daughter, or a young person just entering college, to choose a career in IT?

Here are some of their answers:

"My cousins' kids ask, 'what should I do?' and I tell them, 'you will never be unemployed if you go into networking or network security.' If you want to run the data center or work with physical hardware, you might not be able to get a job. But whatever the [computing] device winds up being -- a tablet or a phone or whatever -- someone's going to have to standardize it, manage it, manage the software licenses. I think IT jobs are going to change, but they're not going to go away." -- Vincent Montalbano, senior infrastructure consultant, Catapult Systems

"I would definitely still recommend IT. It comes down to knowing what your bent is -- are you somebody who knows many different things or somebody who's single-threaded? Either way, you're going to need to be willing to learn as much as you can." -- Dru Urbaniak, systems network administrator, Midwest Legal & eData Services

"I've been frustrated trying to get people in my family and in my circles to get into IT. I'm surprised how many young people are not taking that route. To me it seems there are a lot of employment possibilities there, and a lot of job security, particularly in the utilities sector." -- Charles Williams, manager, Georgia System Operations

"If you're uncomfortable with change, I would say stay away. If you're excited about new technologies, go for it. I can't imagine a job where you do the same thing day in, day out for years and years. However disruptive and scary they can be, new technologies keep things interesting." -- Jason Rolader, systems administrator, Georgia Insurance Guaranty Association

"I tell my kids to pursue their passions, whatever they may be. If it happens to be technology, I would support that. If you're really good at something, become the best at it. People complain about the tech sector, but it sure beats digging a ditch for a living." -- Jim Penman, senior consultant, Smart Consulting Firm

-- Tracy Mayor and Julia King

Plan for Lifelong Learning

How can IT workers traverse the current skills gap and get to work on the new technologies employers say they want now? Beyond that, how should they prepare for the rapidly approaching transformation of corporate IT?

First and foremost, tech managers and employment experts assert, IT professionals must never stop learning -- even though some, if not all, of the training they need will be on their own time and on their own dime.

"You can't rely on a company for your growth and training anymore," says executive recruiter Weinman. "Except for a few enlightened companies, if they're training you at all, they're training you for what they need, not necessarily training for what you need to develop your technical skills over the long run."

That message resonates with Montalbano, who believes he's been successful in both his corporate IT and consulting careers in part because he's willing to invest his own time and resources in staying technologically current.

"You need to invest in your career. I have $2,800 worth of hardware -- a server, two processors, a terabyte of storage, a whole cloud -- in my house. That's how I learned cloud," says Montalbano, who also has a string of Microsoft certifications. "Nobody told me to get my [Microsoft Certified IT Professional credential], but that helped me get a job, and once I got to Catapult, I needed [expertise in] virtualization, so I took three weeks and took that certification exam."

In addition to pursuing training opportunities, IT professionals need to determine where their skills will fit best in the future.

They should begin by assessing where they are in the life cycles of three types of technologies: emerging, mainstream and legacy systems, says Scott Dillon, executive vice president, CTO and head of technology infrastructure services at Wells Fargo.

Dillon's organization offers employees "learning maps" that they can use to chart career paths and identify areas for further development. While the learning maps emphasize emerging technologies, "mainstream is still our bread and butter and the place where we devote most of our training efforts," Dillon says.

Of course, in an industry that never stops innovating, mainstream is always on its way to legacy. "The first question I would ask is, 'Does my current expertise have a long sunset ahead of it?' " says Penman, the CIO-turned-consultant. "Because if you're a Unix sysadmin and they're going to need two instead of 10, you need to get to a place where you're part of the growth rather than part of the containment."

Penman says the next questions should be, "Do I have a strong career track inside this company? Does it treat its people well? Is there room for growth?"

The point, Penman and others say, is that tech people must choose -- and soon -- whether to attach themselves to a company and an industry or to a skill set.

Those who are happiest doing a deep dive into a specific technology should look at those businesses with the most demand for such capabilities: consultancies, outsourcers and service providers. While the idea of moving to that end of the IT market may cause some IT purists to feel queasy, there's no shame in pursuing a career in what Montalbano calls "the other side of the cloud."

Penman agrees. "A lot of top talent is moving to service providers," he says. "If you want to be deep in virtualization, work for a supreme cloud provider like Amazon or Rackspace."

IT pros who want to be part of an organization or industry must improve their business acumen so they're able to explain and demonstrate how they contribute to the bottom line. "Hiring managers are looking for good thinking skills, good analytical skills, and good networking and relationship skills," says executive search expert Fairlie.

That's why Jason Rolader, an administrator at the Georgia Insurance Guaranty Association, decided to study computer information systems rather than pure computer science when he entered Georgia State University in 2000. "I almost went into computer science, but CIS seemed to speak more to me," he says. "It's more focused on applying tech to business in new and different ways."

Even so, he recalls "the handwriting was already on the wall" when he graduated in 2005 -- tech companies were outsourcing and offshoring. "I didn't want to get caught up in that. I said, 'What can I do to differentiate myself?' " says Rolader, who's now 30.

He decided to pursue an MBA, graduating in May of 2009. "It was a great experience. I learned about business on a whole different level, and the hiring managers seem to like that combination. I'm a generalist -- I'm tech-savvy, but I have the knowledge on the business side too," he says.

Now, however, Rolader worries that his tech skills aren't completely up to date, so he's pursuing PMP and VMware VCP5 certifications. "I hope that will help keep me relevant," he says, while acknowledging that he'll probably never be done pivoting between refreshes of his business and tech skills.

"Looking way into the future, I don't know that it's going to end," he muses. "It may calm down for a few years, but then some other disruptive technology will come along. You just always have to keep changing."

Read more about management and careers in Computerworld's Management and Careers Topic Center.

This story, "IT skills: Jumping the chasm" was originally published by Computerworld.

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