Advice for the next generation of IT managers

IT students today are entering a different world from the one graduates 20 years ago saw. Students of all disciplines are getting at least some IT education these days, meaning that computing is less often regarded as a black art - and that people with a business education are now competing for IT jobs.

"If I want to start a business, I can do it in about 15 minutes, over the Web," says Marc Cangemi, a 21-year-old MIS major at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. "I feel that I am more prepared than students from 20 years ago because our world is so much smaller today. We are no longer restricted to bricks-and-mortar jobs; we are wireless. We are constantly connected, which is a little scary, but I feel that it allows us to make more thorough and well-informed decisions."

Awareness of the business side of IT - and the IT side of business - is going to be crucial for anyone starting out in today's workforce. A report issued by Gartner last September predicts that by 2010, six out of 10 people affiliated with IT will assume business-facing roles. Gartner says "technical aptitude alone will no longer be enough" as IT execs will need to "possess expertise in multiple domains." CIOs want IT pros with breadth and depth of skills and diverse experiences, rather than deep and narrow specialization, Gartner says.

Many IT execs agree with Gartner's predictions and are urging IT students to gain as much business knowledge as they can. Here's advice from six execs for students as they prepare for the next 20 years in IT:

-- "Today's students should focus more on general business skills than on specific technology skills. Businesses will want IT professionals [who] understand how IT really relates to the basics of what businesses do. This is why more and more, companies are looking for those who have skill sets related to things such as Six Sigma, process analysis and design, and general business knowledge, in addition to some set of technical skills."

Jeffrey van Brunt, assistant vice president of finance and IT, Salt Lake Theological Seminary, Utah

-- "For those who want to be tech guys, their career path is pretty limited to what they can do. If you have an MIS degree, you should start somewhere in programming or systems analysis. The goal is to leverage technology to get into a functional position ASAP - that means understand the supply chain, apply technology to business, look at the bigger picture. You should do this by the second or third year. In the old days, this would take four, five or six years. . . . You should be able to work in a team, but at some point you need to have individual accountability, where independent thinking [rather than] group consensus becomes important."

James Del Monte, president, JDA Professional Services, Houston

-- "More and more, IT professionals are assuming integrator roles. Whether it's bringing together diverse resources within the organization or sourcing services externally, the future bodes well for those who can moderate, manage and design processes to completion. Those who focus purely on technical skills will always have a role either internally as the subject matter expert or in the marketplace as a provider, but competition will increase as demand narrows."

Sean Farney, global network architect, The Boston Consulting Group

-- "In addition to MBAs, candidates for the higher-paying jobs will need to incorporate an international mind-set and capability into their r‚sum‚. Being multilingual and having international experience will be pluses."

John Wolfe, lead information security engineer at a service provider company

-- Some execs believe there are plenty of areas where IT newcomers can enter the profession, but all roads eventually lead to gaining business knowledge and leveraging IT to help the business.

"One of the best areas to get into in IT is second-level PC support [as opposed to the first-level help desk], where you are exposed to an extremely wide variety of software, hardware and problems. It may not be an extremely well-defined category [like security], but it is the area where one tends to learn the most. It is also this lack of specialization that most rapidly teaches someone how a wide variety of technology works, and begins to prepare them for more advanced [specialized] learning, if they are so inclined. Specialization may bring you high salaries for a while, but if you want to isolate yourself from negative trends in the industry [the software of the day, outsourcing] younger people should consider not specializing too early in their career."

Jeff Kohut, lead LAN analyst at a financial services company

-- "As far as specializations go, a good background is a first step, but I would say the No. 1 specialty will be security. I am not talking about people who know how to configure a VPN and firewalls, but someone who can recommend and write corporate access policies and is willing to work with management and the legal department to document violations, including forensic research, and to keep the security policies up to date and enforceable. Good writing and speaking skills are essential for any IT professional, but in the security profession, political savvy and partnerships with legal and management are essential as well."

Mike Taney, systems engineer, Sovran, Eagan, Minn.

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