Tuesday, October 23, 2007

IT Planner: 5 Steps to Better Job Security

Tech professionals need to adapt their skills to the business side of the job

In an age of cost containment, a looming economic slowdown, outsourcing, offshoring, the impending retirement of a bulk of the IT professional population, and declining enrollments in math, technology, engineering and science classes, it comes as little surprise that IT professionals are an insecure bunch. Many are questioning what can be done to ensure their career survival.

For numerous IT professionals, keeping their skills fresh and proving their continued importance to their organizations is a significant source of stress. This was the topic of a study released Aug. 29 by the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, in London.
"Simply possessing information technology is an insufficient condition for achieving the tangible outcomes in which shareholders are interested, such as improving the bottom line," wrote authors Hsing-Yi Tsai, Deborah Compeau and Nicole Haggerty in "Of Races to Run and Battles to be Won: Technical Skill Updating, Stress and Coping of IT Professionals." "The ability to learn and adapt to changes quickly is thus critical for the career of an IT professional."

But a focus on career survival might actually be the wrong approach, according to one recruiter.

"I think that if you're looking at career survival, you have the wrong perspective," Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing for Yoh, a recruiting and outsourcing company based in Philadelphia, told eWeek. "You should be thinking about career growth."

Lanzalotto pointed to the health of the current IT job market, arguing that "these are the good old days," as the next few decades are expected to be great for technology workers, whether they are building, implementing, structuring or managing IT systems. Other observers have said that IT is still suffering from a case of bad public relations.

"In recent research, we've interviewed CIOs and experts about the current state of the IT job market, and what we found was that the demand for IT skills is back to the prebust level, yet there are a lot of misconceptions about the viability of an IT career," Liz Brady, senior analyst for Forrester Leadership Boards, told eWeek.

Because of the dot-com bust and excessive media hype around outsourcing, Brady said, parents and guidance counselors have discouraged young people from studying technology, resulting in decreasing enrollments in computer science programs and a diminished IT talent pipeline.

"Meanwhile, there is no sign that a career in IT is going away," Brady said. "The demand for technology and business skills continues to increase."

The savviest way to ensure job security is for IT professionals to adapt their outlook and enhance their skill sets to accommodate what organizations will need from their IT departments in the coming years. Some of this will involve losing old, bad habits and require evolving inherent technology skills to better serve businesses.

Such actions will bring IT professionals not only more job security but also the satisfaction that comes with knowing that one's daily work is unquestionably central to the functioning of an organization.

Step 1: Stop blowing it on the small stuff

The IT department has long suffered from a bad reputation, for which it has only itself to blame. In the years before the tech bubble burst, IT was king; a huge demand for technical prowess and a shortage of able bodies put IT professionals in an exalted state.

Tech workers could pick their job and name their salary. They could wear jeans and T-shirts to meetings, and nobody would raise an eyebrow. They often rolled their eyes when an employee did not know where to put his or her Ethernet card. If they didn't feel like doing something, they often didn't.

The dot-com bust and the ensuing IT job cuts largely killed off this "stupid users" attitude, but surprisingly enough, remnants of unprofessionalism remain.
"CIOs are finding that incoming IT professionals are more technically savvy than ever before but very weak in interpersonal skills," said Brady.

Essentially, many IT professionals are blowing their job security on the small stuff: dotting their i's, minding their p's and q's, and not speaking in only "ones and zeros"—or tech-ese—to business departments.

"You've got to practice your interview skills," Brady said. "These CIOs we spoke to were shocked by how diminished these skills have become. Résumés and cover letters should be airtight and match the description of the job you are applying for. You should be researching the company beforehand."

Poor communications skills were at the top of CIOs' lists of concerns about incoming recruits.

"You need to build your communications skills," Brady said. "This is especially true if you're in the millennial generation, and you're used to e-mailing and IMing all of the time. It's concerning for CIOs to have people in their organizations who are afraid to pick up the phone and interact face to face to represent the department to business."

While IT roles in the past were not communication-­­centered, it is the professionals who excel in this area who are already in the greatest demand and will continue to be as IT becomes more central to organizations.

"More and more, it is these communicating roles that are slated to grow," said Brady.

Step 2: Lose without losing control

For as a long as the IT department has existed, much of its role has been to prevent bad things from happening—avoiding security lapses, network breakdowns and faltering desktops.

IT responded to this dictate by exerting as much control as it could over systems.

"'How do you prevent bad things from happening' became 'How you prevent anything from happening,'" Jeffrey Mann, a Gartner analyst, told eWeek.

"We'd put technical controls in that got in the way of people doing bad things—they couldn't go there. It's become a crutch, though, where people expect that if something was bad, they'd be warned," Mann said.

Mann shared an anecdote about a traffic engineer in a small town in the Netherlands who found that when he got rid of all traffic lights and street signs, people drove more safely; average speeds declined, and there was less traffic and fewer accidents.

"In effect, fewer guardrails led to better driving," Mann said. "In IT, a lot of these rules indirectly hurt help desks. In the future, we'll be moving a lot of the other responsibilities back to the users."

Gartner, in an Aug. 15 report titled "Anarchy Knocking at the Gates of IT Security," rationalized that if "no" is the default response from the IT department, user populations will simply conspire against IT, creating an endless game of whack-a-mole.
"But you can't just relax control," Robin Simpson, Gartner analyst, wrote in the report's summary. "You need to find a way to delineate between the business and personal computing worlds so they can work side-by-side and the boundary can be secured."

IT professionals will make more meaningful relationships within their organizations by ceasing to say "no" by default, and instead asking, "How do we allow good things to happen safely?" Mann said. "Move beyond 'How do I control everything' to 'How do I keep things in order,'" Mann said. "Learn to lose control without losing control."

Step 3: Outsource-proof yourself

Outsourcing and offshoring, two economic realities that contributed to IT's reputation as a less-than-ideal place to work, show no signs of letting up.

Technology company CEOs predicted that their use of offshore services will increase over the next several years, according to a 2007 CEO Survey released by Deloitte May 1. Nearly half—45 percent—of the respondents stated that they were currently offshoring, and 55 percent said they planned to offshore jobs in the coming years, so much so that nearly one-third expected to have 10 percent of their work force offshore in five years.

This has left IT professionals questioning what they can do to outsource-proof themselves. What most recruiters and analysts suggest they do is find ways to move up the proverbial career ladder.
Globalization need not have universally negative consequences; it also creates opportunities for technology workers to position themselves as liaisons in outsourced relationships.

"Build your business skills," Brady said. "It's really important to have these midlevel positions such as project manager or business analyst and to find ways to advance into these roles. IT professionals should build their business skills and consider career moves that will jump them from business to IT and back again."

Moving beyond pure technical skills into the management arena creates a value proposition for an IT professional that cannot be easily commoditized and sent elsewhere.

"The first thing is to become more than a tech worker," said Lanzalotto. "Become a business worker. Be one of those people who started as pure tech players and became businesspeople."

He gave the example of a project manager who started out doing database management, then moved to an ERP (enterprise resource planning) project and eventually began managing a portfolio of business projects. People like him are able to leverage a tech background and database management expertise, which is something that every company needs, to prove that they could manage business or technology projects equally well.

"They didn't do it by getting an MBA, and they didn't do it by being an aloof IT worker and pointing a finger at everything business did wrong," said Lanzalotto.
Other experts encourage IT professionals to see certain inevitabilities in offshore outsourcing and do all they can to position themselves out of harm's way.

"Certain jobs will continue to go to cheaper labor markets. But other jobs, which are more client-facing, are less likely to move offshore. Companies see the value of having client-facing personnel," Dave Elchoness, a former IT outsourcing executive and founder of VRWorkplace, told eWeek. VRWorkplace is a Denver-based provider of virtual workplace solutions.

Elchoness said employees always have to think about where they can be of the most value to their companies, bringing something unique to their roles and keeping in mind that those with "a significant or specific business and industry knowledge are hard to replicate elsewhere."

Step 4: Be a technology asset

One of the clearest things, beyond bulking up business skills, IT professionals can do to ensure their future job security is to become assets to their organizations.

Technology is as central to companies as ever, and its place in the business world will only increase over the next decade. Herein, analysts and recruiters said, exists the great opportunity for IT workers—to move beyond managing IT to becoming the go-to technology geniuses in their companies.

Even the most technology-savvy employees can be inundated by their digital options within the workplace.

"There are a lot of possibilities with collaboration right now, and it's overwhelming, so people just stick with e-mail," Gartner's Mann said. "IT could be providing solutions, consulting and facilitating and helping people make their jobs more efficient through IT." Recruiters call this "building your brand."

"How do I develop the Jim Lanzalotto brand? I become someone who is known for being a particular resource to an organization, for fixing problems in your company or for being the person that someone turns to because they turn around bad situations," said Lanzalotto. Becoming the go-to person whom individuals within a company consult when they have a technology problem will deeply ingrain the IT professional in his or her company.

Much of this involves staying ahead of the curve of new technology. If users are overwhelmed by collaboration software, simplify it for them. Become aware of the pitfalls and perks of social software, moving beyond seeing it as the IT enemy. Organizations have questions about these technologies and need tech-savvy employees to answer them.

"You need to leverage yourself for the wave of the future," Lanzalotto said. "For example … what you want to become is intertwined with the ecosystem of the technology. Over time, the more you can really start to leverage what you know and become a more networked person, the more job opportunities and job security you'll have."

Step 5: Be the whole package

It is difficult these days to discuss technology success stories without mentioning one of the biggest of all: Google.

The search giant doesn't just run its business in an unconventional manner—providing employees with free haircuts, on-site dry cleaning services and free transportation to work—it recruits differently, too.

Unlike most organizations, Google makes a point to recruit not just for positions—such as a new systems administrator—but for a whole package: hybrid employees who can work in many roles. Other technology organizations are beginning to implement these practices as well.

"CIOs are now instituting more interviews and including trials such as mock governance meetings to see how the IT professional holds up in these situations," Brady said. "They're checking them for the ability to play these hybrid roles. They're looking beyond the résumé."

IT workers are increasingly expected to demonstrate a job capacity beyond IT and some business know-how. Organizations want to see how they fit in the big picture, and being able to show oneself as a multifaceted and valuable asset to a company is nearly a guarantee of job security.

"Companies like Google and other new-economy companies are creating value propositions," Lanzalotto said. "Employees don't just create code. They start thinking about what the future business is for it. They don't make widgets."

cheers Aurobindo
courtesy@ eweek.com

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