Building Skills for the Changing World of IT

It's no secret that the IT profession is in a constant state of transformation. Continued advancements in technology, offshore outsourcing, national and regional market trends and a host of other factors contribute to the evolving nature of our field. It's enough to make your head spin.

While these situations are all vastly different, each has the same implication for your career: Though deep technical skills will always remain at the core of every IT professional's skill set, there are more reasons now than ever before to strengthen your nontechnical experience to move your career forward. Consider these examples.

The Changing Role of Networking Professionals

Advancements in networking technology mean that many operations that were previously handled by human operators -- for example, testing and rollouts -- can now be accomplished through software alone. As a result, networking professionals are increasingly being asked to shift their focus from operational tasks to strategic thinking. Technical skills are required to launch and monitor processes, but senior staffers are also moving into roles where they collaborate with colleagues from other departments to examine big-picture initiatives.

A Functional Approach to ERP

On the development side, organizations of all sizes continue to use ERP programs, such as those produced by Oracle, SAP and PeopleSoft, to replace in-house systems and link various internal processes.

Traditionally, the majority of firms have bought off-the-shelf technology and relied on teams of programmers to customize the code to meet their own set of circumstances. For example, the financial module in the packaged software might align seamlessly with the company's existing accounting processes, but the human resources module might need a complete overhaul to prove useful. In many cases, such modifications are expensive to make and sometimes prevent an organization from successfully installing software updates to their ERP programs.

A growing number of firms are now taking a different approach -- they're modifying their business processes rather than the applications they purchase. In addition, software firms have developed ERP products that are more customizable, allowing for flexible configuration options that don't require code-based changes. Combined, these factors contribute to significant cost savings for the organization because less customer support is needed, upgrades can be made faster and more efficiently, and implementation is simpler.

Companies, therefore, require their technology staffs to take a more functional approach than in the past. Today's IT professionals need a deep knowledge of the complex configuration options available for top ERP packages, as well as the ability to identify areas where business processes can be modified to fit with ERP applications. Thus, developers and business systems analysts must possess a thorough understanding of the organization as a whole -- not just the IT department -- and have the skills to link the technical and business sides of an issue.

Nontechnical Skills in Demand

No matter what your role is within your firm's IT department or the unique issues you may be facing, it's becoming necessary for all IT professionals to possess the following nontechnical abilities:

  • Communication skills. As businesses place an increased emphasis on technology, they seek strong communicators who can clearly explain complex technical concepts to a variety of colleagues, from co-workers within the IT department to nontechnical counterparts in other groups and senior executives.
  • Business fundamentals. IT professionals must be able to understand the company's operations and translate business requirements into cost or time savings.
  • Interpersonal skills. Diplomacy and tact are essential when working on teams. These qualities enable staff members to build successful business relationships with colleagues throughout the organization.
Technology executives agree that nontechnical skills are gaining importance in today's workplace. Yet in a recent survey commissioned by Robert Half Technology, only 53% of CIOs polled said they offer their IT staffs training in leadership, communication, project management, business fundamentals and the like. If corporate-sponsored professional development is not an option for you, you'll need to take it upon yourself to become stronger in these areas. Even if your organization provides formal avenues for improving these skills, you should still consider the following:
  • Assuming a leadership role. Taking on increased responsibility will expose you to the non-IT functions within your own department such as budgeting, business planning and hiring.
  • Volunteering for cross-departmental projects. Working with colleagues from other areas of the firm will allow you to learn about the entire organization and help you refine the skills necessary to build relationships with your co-workers.
  • Taking courses. Many professional organizations offer courses in accounting and finance, project management and leadership that are specifically designed for IT professionals.
  • Gathering firsthand knowledge. If you're working on an application for another department, speak to your manager about the possibility of shadowing that group for a day. By seeing firsthand the issues and challenges the accounting team, for example, faces, you'll be better able to meet their unique technology needs.
As an IT professional, your certifications, knowledge about the latest applications and experience level are critical to landing your next job or advancing at your current company. But what will most help you move your career forward may not be your technical expertise. Build your nontechnical abilities by assuming greater responsibility, taking continuing education courses and interacting with colleagues from throughout the organization to keep pace with the continual change occurring within IT.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe and offers online job search services at www.rht.com.

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