Feature: The evolving IT worker

Don't call Tom Zavos an IT guy. "I'm a business professional with IT expertise," he says.

Zavos is the business systems manager at Kraft Foods' sales and customer service division. He's responsible for Kraft Plus EZ-Serv, a major electronic-business initiative providing information to Kraft's trade customers via the Web.

Zavos aligns system requirements with business strategies, manages project time lines, makes presentations to business executives and leads an application development team. "My responsibility is to know our business and where we want it to go and translate those goals into technical plans," he says.

That mix of business and information technology responsibilities also makes Zavos a perfect example of the emerging IT professional for the New Economy: He has strong business skills, he's a smooth communicator and he's still well versed in technology.

"As product life cycles shrink, technol-ogy has an enormous impact," says Yash Gupta, dean of the University of Washington Business School in Seattle.

"How do we evaluate [research and development], make investments, manage suppliers and our markets [and] the manufacturing process, create ROI plus shareholder value? Technology is the factor that ties all these together."

"For the first time, the IT organisation can have a truly large impact on the business - but we must have the business perspective to make the connection between us and the rest of the organisation," says Steve Finnerty, senior vice president and CIO at Kraft.

For example, Finnerty says, Kraft's IT organisation had a "strong catalytic role" in shaping how the company's senior business leaders approached electronic business. "We were creating a business strategy, not a systems strategy," he says.

As IT becomes strategic, the lines between IT, marketing and business development are blurring quickly, creating more opportunities - and challenges - for IT professionals.

"In the old days, you wouldn't see new products launched from IT," says Kathy Britain White, CIO at Cardinal Health "The opportunity to be creative, to present ideas to business and marketing, is a new aspect for IT."

To be part of product and business development, IT professionals need great team skills, say CIOs. As organisations become more fluid, employees in all disciplines will join teams on specific projects, then disband, shuffle and form new teams for other projects. So IT professionals will work closely with many different supervisors and users.

For their part, CIOs will need to be flexible to retain IT professionals with strong business skills that could open doors outside of IT.

"I want to keep good people in the company, even if they go to a different division," says Dave Zitur, CIO and vice president of finance at Carlson Leisure Group. "But that is a challenge as a manager."

Kraft has built that kind of fluidity into its IT career track through its Leadership Program, which pairs experienced IT employees with business executives as mentors, and by encouraging IT staffers to work directly within business units.

Zavos says this approach gives him lots of career flexibility. "I can stay close to IT, but if an opportunity comes up in a business function, I'm better prepared for it," he says.

Those opportunities will be far fewer for IT professionals - and IT organisations - short on business talent, even if their technical skills are strong. That may not be fair, but as Finnerty says, "It just is" - and that may be the first business lesson the new IT worker needs to learn.

The shifting supply of IT workers

What does the need for multi-disciplined professionals in IT mean to you? For starters, you may see a surprising amount of competition for your job sooner than you might expect.

With today's IT talent pool looking more like a rapidly drying puddle and the need for business skills growing, many companies say they've started looking outside traditional sources for talent to fill IT positions that include business responsibilities.

Some CIOs say they already expect to train liberal arts and other graduates who show technical aptitude. "We'll probably have to go outside technology and business paths to find people with the analytical and quantitative skills we need," says Davor Grgic, vice president of corporate information systems at Kohler Co.

Some companies are fostering IT/business hybrid professionals internally. MarchFirst, a consultancy in Chicago, provides a Web-based learning portal for its 8500 employees. About 600 log in daily to register for courses or to assess their career skills, says Sue Reardon, the company's chief learning officer.

Some companies are turning to their users for business skills injections. At Kohler, business and IT professionals worked next to each other for 18 months on the company's SAP implementation. Now, certain skilled business users actually design and create applications for the enterprise resource planning system, while IT does final testing and integration.

In some cases, such power users are getting hired as technology experts. Cascade Consulting hired skilled users of popular telecommunications billing and switch provisioning software for a data entry project at $US12 per hour. Now those employees have all left for positions averaging $US120,000 in annual salaries, says Rex Eads, president and CEO of the placement firm.

Meanwhile, the nation's business schools are rebuilding MBA programs with technology as a core business strategy. Graduates of these new programs may be potent competition. And enrolments in MIS degree programs, which stress a combined business and technology curriculum, have doubled or tripled at many colleges and universities.

"If you can write code, understand the technology and manage it, you're a hot commodity," says Ranjay Gulati, associate professor and director of the Center for Research on Technical Innovation and E-Commerce at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management. How hot? Eads says he pays consultants with strong technical and business skills salaries ranging from $US90,000 to $US175,000.

The bottom line: a wave of new-style IT professionals is starting to build. If you don't develop business skills to complement your technical abilities, that swell might just sweep you away.

Dotcoms, e-commerce and changing IT professionalsHoping to join the dotcom and e-commerce gold rush? If you think your technical skills are the only pick and shovel you'll need, you may find yourself chasing fool's gold.

"We each need to wear 12 hats here," says Eric Tagliere, director of e-commerce at EthnicGrocer.com.

Tagliere says he has turned down good programmers who couldn't interact with business people or show an ability to think about how technical decisions made today could affect the business three months from now. Instead, he hires communications and English majors and others who seem to have technical aptitude if not a B.Sc. in computer science.

"I'd rather take someone with the energy and enthusiasm to learn than to re-engineer a techie to be self-operating," Tagliere says.

That's the bottom line at dotcoms and, to some extent, at other businesses launching e-commerce ventures. In e-commerce, where technology is the product, CIOs say even database administrators need sharp business and communication skills.

"We're looking for technology strategists, not technology gods," says Raji Shankar, co-founder and director of marketing at Stars and Stripes Omnimedia, a military multimedia Web content provider. His firm tends to hire MBAs with IT concentrations.

Customers are one powerful force behind the need for multi-disciplined IT folk in the electronic-business world.

Whether designing an extranet for trade customers or back-end systems for fulfilling Thai fish-paste orders, e-commerce IT professionals are creating systems directly for paying customers - an audience that's new to many IT departments.

"The customer's experience of the technology will be the major component of the customer's experience with the firm," says Maryam Alavi, the John M Cook chairwoman of information strategy at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. "Technologists will need to see things through customers' eyes."

That's another reason why business-inept techies need not apply for dotcom jobs, says John Petrone, chief technology officer at online bookseller Alibris. "What IT produces is now so core that it is the business," he says. "You can't afford to hire people who are completely isolated from customers."

And with everyone required to share duties and decision-making, dotcoms can't afford technical prima donnas. "If you find cross-dimensional people, they can solve business problems," says Mark Skalski, CIO at EthnicGrocer.com. "They'll help grow the rest of the IT staff too."

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