Forecast 2010: 6 hottest skills for 2010

Pent-up demand for new projects. Veteran employees leaving the company. Who could complain about such pressures in the waning months of 2009, when the year was spent under a cloud of economic misery?

Certainly not Shane Kilgore, IT director at Randall-Reilly Publishing Co. in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was dismayed to see two talented software developers give notice recently. One had five years under his belt and the other had 10, but Kilgore took their departures as a sign that the economy is taking its first steps toward recovery. He plans to hire a few new developers this year, not only to replace the ones who left, but also to work on new products that will be in demand when -- as many economists predict -- the recovery gains headwind this year. (Read more about the outlook for IT compensation and hiring inComputerworld's Salary Survey.)

"Things have been frozen because of the economy," Kilgore says. "But if we don't get new products out there, we won't have enough places for customers to put their money."

Still, with signs pointing to recovery and even job growth in 2010, companies such as Randall-Reilly are planning to hire only in key areas, and even then, they will favor people with skills that span multiple disciplines. In many cases, companies will still resist bringing on full-time employees, says Tom Silver, senior vice president for North America at Dice Holdings Inc., which operates Dice.com and other careers Web sites. "One thing we see companies do is bring people in on a project basis, and then as business comes back, they hire them full time," Silver says.

According to Computerworld's 2010 Forecast survey, this year's hiring plans certainly aren't at 2009 levels. Less than 20% of the 312 IT executives polled said they plan to increase IT head count in the next 12 months, compared with 26% in the previous year. And nearly 20% said they plan to decrease their IT head count.

For IT professionals who are either looking to get back into the workforce or mulling moves to greener pastures, here are the six types of skills most in demand among survey respondents who said they expect to hire IT workers in 2010.

1. Programming/Application Development

Among companies that plan to hire, the top reason for doing so is to meet demand for new systems and projects. That could be why programming/application development is the skill set that's most in demand, by far, according to Computerworld's survey.

"We're actually seeing new projects get the green light," says Dave Willmer, executive director of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology. Quite possibly, he says, these were projects that were canceled at the end of 2008, only to be revived for 2010. The wave of new projects is also leading to demand for application developers who can double as business analysts and project managers, Willmer says. (Read Willmer's recent column, "IT hiring poised for skills-driven rebound.")

Specifically, companies will look for developers with knowledge of .Net, Java, Web development, open source and portal technologies such as Microsoft Corp.'s Sharepoint, says Willmer, who is a Computerworld columnist.

Demand is growing for people who know specialized programming languages like Ruby on Rails and AJAX, Silver notes. There aren't many jobs that require those skills, he says, but the number of openings has increased since January 2009.

Kilgore says he would like to find a "hybrid" software developer who can also serve as a business analyst. "We need someone who can talk to the business and be a requirements gatherer, project manager and software developer, all rolled into one," he says. He also needs developers with open-source expertise -- a rare talent, he says -- as well as professionals familiar with Microsoft tools for the ERP and marketing intelligence sides of the business.

Willmer says it makes sense that companies are looking for developers with skills in other areas, such as business analysis or even quality assurance, since employers are concerned about the cost of talent. "They're making sure they get the most out of their resources," he says.

Computerworld's Forecast survey respondents said they also need developers to build homegrown applications in an effort to save money. That's the case for James Sullivan, manager of information services at Covidien, a global health-care company in Mansfield, Mass.

Sullivan soon hopes to add three or four business-savvy programmer/analysts with Java or .Net backgrounds and an understanding of SQL databases. That represents a 25% increase in his usual hiring levels, he says, and it's a departure from previous years when he looked for programming skills alone.

One of Covidien's 2010 projects is to migrate from third-party custom-built applications to commercial off-the-shelf applications or bring them in-house. This, Sullivan says, would reduce spending on vendors and consultants, as well as enable his group to provide the support and turn around business-driven changes more quickly. This dovetails with a growing trend at Covidien to better leverage existing resources. "If something takes 10 hours today, we're asking how we can make it take one-tenth of that," Sullivan says.

At Scottrade Inc., the recession didn't affect hiring, according to Ian Patterson,CIO at the online financial services company. He hired more than 150 IT professionals in 2009 and plans to hire up to 200 this year to meet demand for new internal and customer-facing applications, and to keep up with changes and expansions. He says he's mainly looking for people with C++, Java and C# skills and notes that the company is also implementing a Siebel CRM system for the call center.

Energy Northwest, a power supplier in Richland, Wash., also saw continued growth in 2009. CIO Keith Cooke is looking for computer and electrical engineers with Java, Web and .Net skills to help fully Web-enable an internal system that is partially Web-based but still uses a terminal-based interface. Initially, he didn't want to retrain staff to use a browser-based interface. Now, however, "we're bringing on people who can help us adapt our legacy system to the new workforces coming in," Cooke says.

2. Help Desk/Technical Support

It's no surprise that there will be strong demand for the people who make the help desk hum in 2010, Silver says. The need for support technicians tends to reflect general business conditions, he says. "As the business starts to improve, companies hire more people, which increases demand for help desk staff," Silver explains.

Willmer says he's already seeing a rise in demand for help desk and support skills, especially among companies that cut too deeply in this area in 2009. "They can get away with it for a certain time period, but it eventually catches up and affects revenue," he says. Instead of offering full-time positions, however, some companies are hiring on a project basis, he adds.

3. Networking

The demand for networking professionals, Willmer says, is likely connected to the growing complexity of networks and to the stresses placed on them by virtualization and newly popular approaches to application delivery, such as cloud computing and software as a service.

Cooke says the network will be a big area of focus in the coming year. Energy Northwest is making increasing use of video and voice over its IP network, so it will need network, voice and radio engineers to handle upgrades and ensure compliance with new federal mandates. One of those mandates requires the company to move from wideband to narrowband radio frequencies.

Patterson sees Scottrade dabbling with a converged infrastructure in the next 12 months, driving a need for people with a mix of server, software and networking skills to support networked storage and server devices contained in a single chassis. "This will change the market for the type of people we need," he says. "It won't be just a guy who knows EMC and Hitachi storage, but [one] who knows server, storage and networking all in one device. We'll need a guy who says, 'The network has a problem here,' but when he traces it down, the problem is due to a lock on a table in the storage device."

4. Project Management

Silver sees project management as an area that is growing in importance and a good avenue for technology professionals interested in building up their careers. "Professionals who understand technology and how it fits in the overall business strategy are the ones who add the most value, get paid more and have the most fulfilling careers," he says.

5. Security

Willmer sees a relationship between demand for security skills and the still-shaky economy. "The biggest threat to companies is breaches by their own staff," he says. "When you throw in changes to the staff and disgruntled employees losing their benefits or facing the threat of being laid off, you increase the chances of network fraud or security infringement."

Meanwhile, Cooke is concentrating on hiring people with cybersecurity skills. "Ten years ago, we didn't worry -- as leaders in our companies -- about things like passwords," he says. "Now we're making sure we support complex passwords. That's just a new reality."

Energy Northwest is looking for recent graduates who studied computer engineering and digital controls to help upgrade its manufacturing systems from analog to digital. "They need to understand how those systems should be protected, given the security world we're operating in," Cooke says, citing new federal regulations and threat warnings emanating from the Department of Homeland Security.

Patterson thinks the trend toward including security features in network and storage devices will also affect the skills professionals need in this realm. "I can't believe in the long term that you won't see companies like EMC or Cisco not embedding security into their devices," he says. "We're going to need people who understand not just how to run things from a server or storage or network perspective, but also the security implications."

Security is an evergreen skill, according to Silver. "If you know how to help keep your company's information secure, there will be a home for you forever," he says.

6. Business Intelligence

Computerworld's survey respondents ranked business intelligence skills as No. 6 in importance; for Kilgore, however, BI is a higher priority. "Being a smaller midsize organization, we're late to the game in BI," he says. "We don't have the budget to do a year's worth of R&D; we have to be effective with it out of the gate."

Sullivan would like to find a data architect to help with Covidien's conversion from a nonstandard business intelligence system and miscellaneous reporting tools to an enterprise standard. More important than a BI expert, though, are programmer/analysts who can relate the nitty-gritty of data tables, database joins and data structure to business requirements. "That's what I'm finding is more valuable to us at this stage in getting BI established and used by the business," Sullivan says.

Meanwhile, at Scottrade, Patterson sees BI intertwined with Web 2.0. Whereas BI has traditionally been understood as a system that collects historical data and provides tools to analyze it, he says, he's now more interested in real-time BI that relies, for instance, on people entering competitive data into a wiki and providing that information almost instantaneously via a portal.

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

This story, "Forecast 2010: 6 hottest skills for 2010" was originally published by Computerworld.

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