Career watch: IT roles evolve

In her position at Robert Half, a provider of IT staff on a project and full-time basis, Spencer Lee has been noticing an evolution lately in the role of the IT professional. She recently spoke about it with Computerworld contributing editor Jamie Eckle.

We've heard for years that soft skills are of increasing importance to IT professionals. Is this an accelerating trend?

With companies' increasing reliance on technology to support and drive their business, the role of the IT professional has become much more prominent. You are now frequently looked to for strategic guidance and one-to-one support. It's common today, for example, for those in IT to be asked to make a case for or against a particular sort of upgrade or hardware purchase, and this requires excellent communication skills, the power of persuasion and a fundamental understanding of the firm's business needs. As a result, soft skills are playing a larger role in an IT candidate's professional development and advancement today than at any time in the past.

Will there soon be no place left for the hard-core techie with antisocial tendencies -- the stereotypical coder with a heart of ones and zeros?

Opportunities will remain for purely technical professionals, but the workplace is increasingly team-oriented. If you can't work well with others, your options can be limited. Keep in mind, too, that because companies require IT staff to take a more strategic and collaborative approach than in the past, soft skills are playing a larger role in an IT candidate's marketability and are frequently a deciding factor when evaluating two individuals with otherwise equal qualifications.

Are schools recognizing the need for strategic thinking and interpersonal skills in today's IT pros? How are they meeting this need?

Of course, broad-based general education has always been part of a four-year curriculum at most universities. But increasingly, administrators of computer science- and information systems-related programs are recognizing and addressing the need for nontechnical skills development. They're beginning to expand their programs to include a more well-rounded curriculum, including instruction in areas such as business, finance and marketing.

What is surprising, however, is that many companies are not offering this kind of training to their own IT staff. In a recent survey commissioned by our company, nearly half -- 47 percent -- of 1,400 CIOs polled said their companies do not provide IT professionals with instruction in business and communication fundamentals. Many firms faced with an immediate need for technology expertise and limited budgets for professional development opt to support technical training instead. While these managers may perceive soft skills as less critical, they're missing out on an opportunity to enhance the team's productivity as well as their ability to collaborate on solving everyday challenges.

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