H&R Block CIO on 21st century IT careers

Marc West, senior vice president and CIO of U.S.-based H&R Block answers readers' questions about innovation, skills in the 21st century, getting started in IT and more.

What are employer expectations for technical professionals in the 21st century? By that, I'm referring to skills as well as anything else that employers might be expecting, like degrees.

Technology professionals need to offer expertise beyond core technical skills for continued development opportunities. Think of the challenge as aligning your "how" skills (how to build, operate, scale) with the "what" (the things the business cares about). Certifications offer some value, but only up to a point.

Converging the "how" and the "what" requires you to reach out to start the conversation with your business partners. The best way I know of is to reach out at the peer level and walk a mile in another person's shoes. It is amazing what you can learn and influence through simple conversation. Buy lunch for a peer on the business side and discuss what he does and how things can be better.

I got a bachelor's degree in computer information systems three years ago, and I haven't been able to find a job in IT yet. Right now, I'm working on my Oracle DBA certification. Please tell me what I need to do to get a database administrator's job.

A degree is an important measure of skill and value but not the single factor that lands an IT job. If your goal is to be an Oracle DBA, you might want to consider taking another path, such as programming or operations, as an entry point and working your way over to the DBA career path. Landing a DBA job based on certification alone is challenging -- you'll need some other IT or analyst skills base to attract attention to your resume. Another DBA path that might work is to focus on other databases, such as MySQL or SQL Server, and consider smaller companies that are seeking skills beyond Oracle as an entry point. Having Oracle DBA certification is more valuable if you can demonstrate broader database skills, such as data modeling or performance analysis.

I have 12 years of experience in IT support and support management but am confused. With so many avenues in IT now, I'm not sure where to specialize. Any tips on what someone with my experience should focus on?

The core question I'd ask is, "What do I want to do?" and work back from that point. At your experience level, specialization carries some risks, so be careful! Being seen as the go-to person for a specific area is great until that technology either changes or is commoditized. Assess your personal -- not technical -- strengths and build a development plan that leverages those as the primary focus.

Focus on the more valuable aspects of technology skills that will stand the test of time. Focusing on a specific aspect, like a technology stack, is like accomplishing a project -- valuable but not enduring. Get the strategy right (your core skills), and the implementation (specialization and technical) will follow.

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