What makes a great IT pro

Yesterday's skills are dead. They might have made an IT manager great five years ago but they aren't the same as those in demand today. And they certainly aren't the skills that will be sought after five years from now. As IT matures and business changes, the qualities of a great IT pro are also evolving. And not everyone thinks IT managers are changing for the better.

Luke Smith, former Queensland-based water supply company SunWater IT manager, said the typical IT manager has changed - "and not necessarily for the better".

"Five years ago most IT managers came from an evolved IT background; they used to know how the stuff worked and simply drifted into management," Smith told Computerworld. "This left them with a good understanding of the technology and people they were managing, if not the real business needs. Now, many IT managers have been brought in from non-IT areas so that IT can align itself better with the business. This leaves an IT team that is worried about service-level agreements (SLAs), but not so worried about IT-centric issues like DR and security."

Smith said he can only hope that in five years time there is some sort of happy medium where today's IT staff have evolved through strong, business-driven management yet still understand the more IT-centric details.

"They know the business wants tight SLAs and tight budgets; however, they also know how to convince the business that IT issues matter," he said.

Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority IT manager Virginia Orr agrees there was more emphasis on operational and technical skills five years ago. "Primarily because applications and systems required a much greater level of manual intervention," she said.

"Good people skills weren't a major consideration," Orr said. "End users with issues were generally regarded as a problem and not as a customer. They were spoken to in technical terms, often creating confusion. The ability to patch up problems reactively was highly regarded, as was the ability to keep things running without asking for extra money!"

Orr believes five years from now a strong business focus will be important, so will being more proactive about working with the business to understand its needs and identify where technology offers a better solution.

"IT managers increasingly need to move on from their programming and network admin roots and broaden their skill base - perhaps by undertaking further studies such as an MBA, accounting and law," she said.

IDC Australia's senior IT management analyst Peter Hind said there was a sense of opportunity in 2000 about Y2K and to "fix the issues bigger than Y2K".

"So the focus was technical [and] there was a sense of unease that business was getting too far down the dotcom trail," Hind said. "Five years from today the focus will be more business-oriented and IT managers will require communication and writing skills."

Hind believes present skill sets may not "cut the mustard" going forward and the challenge for IT managers is that they need to be more astute in business areas to get the respect of their business peers.

"You can't just have technical answers to problems; a can-do attitude is needed more than just looking for technical nirvana," he said, adding that where this gets contentious is how to manage or oversee IT if the person isn't technically competent.

"You may make decisions you can't deliver on," he said. "Then it becomes more about delegation to people who can answer those questions."

Hind said because business expectations are increasingly short-term, the ability to manage corporate change is growing in importance.

"IT people may be natural leaders but they won't get there by talking technology," he said. "The people who have impressed me the most had an appreciation of the detail without being bogged down with it. They had a long-term vision for the organization, and always wanted to understand the business goals and a broader view." According to Hind, another challenge is that many business people have a view that IT lives for IT alone. Hind said there was a danger of trying to "pull the technical wool over management eyes" but now people aren't intimidated by IT.

"It's not really a question of five-year gaps but how IT managers need to be effective change agents," he said.

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