Outlook 2010 IT skills checklist: The vertical climb

IT professionals battling for fewer positions could gain an employment edge with industry-specific knowledge.

Security, virtualization and cloud computing skills will help IT pros woo hiring managers, but the real advantage to candidates comes by way of industry specific-knowledge that helps them boost the business’ bottom line with their high-tech talent.

After a year of hiring freezes and layoffs, IT professionals in 2010 will face a challenging employment market and the search for IT talent will grow beyond in-demand high-tech skills to also include industry-specific business savvy.

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IT professionals still smarting from the pain of the economic recession inflicted in 2009 won't find immediate relief in a booming employment market for 2010, analysts say. Companies will be rebuilding IT teams, but the majority of them will return to pre-recession levels as IT executives examine different sourcing options while working to help their businesses recover from the downturn.

"Companies looking to fill internal IT roles will focus more on crucial business-facing positions. There is no longer a blurring between IT and the business; those barriers are broken down now. IT will be expected to take more of a leadership role and make decisions for the business," says Lily Mok, vice president of Gartner's CIO Research. "IT needs to look for opportunities to really help the business transition from recession to recovery. IT needs to do more than support the business now; it needs to prepare an organization to return to growth and show how technology can be used to help the business shine."

That means managers and recruiters are on the lookout for IT pros with vertical-industry knowledge in areas such as healthcare, insurance and government, as well as experience with business process re-engineering. Yet technology-specific skills around emerging areas such as cloud computing and software-as-a-service will drive the need for savvy vendor management approaches, while security, virtualization and data center technical know-how will continue to be sought after among the pool of available IT pros.

"Data shows that the combination of deep technical IT skills with project management or leadership experience, as well as looking at the intersection of IT and risk management for the business, are the areas in highest demand," says Jeff Schwartz, principal of human capital at Deloitte Consulting.

Know your vertical

The stereotype of IT existing in the back office and not facing the business is gone. In years past, industry watchers have advised high-tech workers to better communicate with the business, but now the task is to become a critical player in the success of the business – and not only by taking direction. IT professionals will be expected to take a leadership role in 2010 and take initiative in making decisions in the best interests of the business.

"Even with all the new technologies going on, the job market for IT pros is about the application of the technologies to the business. The skills required going forward will be multi-faceted in ways they haven't been in the past. Technology workers need to understand the business and provide a diverse set of technical skills to become the go-to person to deliver the right technology for the business," says Rich Milgram, CEO of recruiting and strategic staffing provider Beyond.com.

Some vertical industries in particular will see a huge spike in demand for high-tech workers. For instance, healthcare is expected to see demand for 70,000 new IT positions in the next 12 months, according to the Computing Technology Industry Association. The increase in open jobs is due in part to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which includes billions in provisions for healthcare IT. The expected uptick in demand is driving industry organizations such as CompTIA to find the best ways to educate and train IT workers on healthcare-specific skills.

"We are working now to determine what kind of IT roles should be supported in certifications from CompTIA," says Terry Erdle, senior vice president of skills certifications at CompTIA.

Also associated with economic stimulus plans, insurance companies and government agencies will experience a significant increase in demand for high-tech talent.

"There is little question that the healthcare sector, regardless of what the outcome of healthcare reform will be, is going to continue growing. From an industry perspective, healthcare is at the top of the list followed by government agencies in terms of demand," Deloitte’s Schwartz says.

This sharpened focus on business knowledge will also drive demand in IT governance, business processes engineering, project management and architect positions, high-tech talent experts report.

"The skills within IT that are process-centric are clearly more in demand today," says Sean Ebner, regional vice president of Technisource. "The blurring of lines between business process engineers and technology engineers has happened and companies want to hire candidates that will be able to apply governance, to implement and modify systems in a more cost-efficient manner using process engineering and knowledge automation."

Understanding the business, being able to re-engineer processes in such a way to streamline operations and optimizing IT projects will be top of mind for many hiring managers, IT industry watchers agree.

"Those coming from the business side or being very well versed in the business processes are in good positions," Gartner's Mok says. "Combining the knowledge of the technical systems with business processes will help IT professionals get and keep key positions."

Secure next-generation nets

It's no surprise with multiplying headlines around data leaks and cybercrime that security skills remain sought after, even in a down employment market. Yet the type of security professional in demand ranges from technical skills acquired via certifications to executive-level risk managers, analysts say.

"Security continues to be in demand, in both operational and strategic positions. Information risk management is seeing growth as well as those positions that require a tactical technical focus," says David Foote, co-founder, CEO and chief research officer at Foote Partners.

Foote Partners data shows that while many certified and noncertified skills experienced pay decreases throughout the recession, IT professionals with security certification on average experienced a nearly 2% pay increase through the third quarter of 2009. Over the past two years, IT security certifications overall saw average premium pay increase by more than 3.6%, trailing only architecture/project management certifications, which experienced a 5% compensation increase in the same timeframe.

"If you know how to keep your company's data secure, you were in demand yesterday, are in demand today and will be in demand tomorrow," says Tom Silver, senior vice president with Dice.com.

CompTIA in late 2009 polled some 1,537 high-tech workers and found 37% intend to pursue a security certification over the next five years. Separately, nearly 20% indicated they would seek ethical hacking certification over the same time period. And another 13% pinpointed forensics as the next certification goal in their career development.

"When you add the results, you will see that about two-thirds of IT workers intend to add some type of security certification to their portfolio," says Terry Erdle, senior vice president of skills certifications. "This trend is driven by two factors: one, security issues are pervasive, and two, more and more people are moving to managed services and software-as-a-service models, which involves more complex networking. That level of non-enterprise data center computing has people look more closely at their security infrastructure."

Acquire open source skills

Open source software is gaining steam among enterprise companies that find the flexibility and low cost appealing and now can pick and choose among commercial support packages. Certified skills and experience in the realm of open source packages are already on recruiters' radar, according to IT talent experts, who report that companies in 2010 will seek candidates with open source skills.

"We are seeing a ton of demand for skills around open source technologies and frameworks. Demand for Python, Ruby on Rails and PHP development skills far exceeds the number of people available with skills," says Michael Kirven, co-founder and principal of IT resourcing firm Bluewolf.

The online job resource for technology professionals, Dice.com, also reports seeing increased interest in open source skill sets. Silver says the Web site has seen a growth in interest around programming skills such as Ruby on Rails and Python as well.

"There are about 1,000 jobs open looking for such skills and we expect open source technologies are an area employers will be looking to hire," he says.

Yet keep in mind the interest in these technologies is at an enterprise level, from employers looking to hire IT professionals that can help them run data centers more efficiently and cost-effectively.

"Hiring managers want to see more than people playing around with open source in a sandbox environment. People that get trained and certified on these open source technologies will stand out when their resumes fall on recruiters' desks," Kirven adds.

Understand the hype

Emerging technologies, perhaps shrouded in a bit of hype, have garnered attention from hiring managers as well. With vendors touting cloud computer, software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications and social networking tools as a productivity, operations and economic problem solvers, enterprise IT leaders will want staff who can navigate through the fluff and find the substance in such offerings.

Gartner recognized cloud computing, mobility, social networking and virtualization as top technologies for 2010 and in turn, that means hiring managers will be seeking skills in those same areas, according to Mok. That is one reason the research firm identified Java, .Net and other Web development technologies as a sought after skill set.

"The demand for such skills is not about the amount of available IT pros that know Java, it is more with the quality of the skill sets people have in those areas," Mok explains. "The future is the Web via social computing and those are just extensions of a variety of multimedia and Web skills. It is directly related to how businesses can use the Internet to better connect with customers."

While Web development skills aren't new, cloud computing, for instance, is being presented as a new technology, though many would argue it is based on previous models for delivering technology. Still such confusion around cloud services could be quickly cleared up but a high-tech worker well-versed in the market who knows what moves might best benefit the company. Such knowledge is going to get IT leaders' attention, IT talent experts say.

"Anyone looking for work in the IT space should be well-versed in what cloud means to the company they want to work for. It means many different things, everyone is throwing cloud into their product pitches," Bluewolf's Kirven says. "Hiring managers want to see people that have done cloud before and understand how it can be used and how it can turn into a disaster. They want the best possible talent in house to try to drive these new initiatives."

Vendors such as IBM are even getting in on the cloud skills action. The company in fall 2009 launched its IBM Cloud Academy, which it describes as a "global forum for educators, researchers and IT personnel from the education industry to pursue cloud computing initiatives, develop skills and share best practices for reducing operating costs while improving quality and access to education." CompTIA also in the fall of 2009 acquired MSP partners, which Erdle says, is helping the industry organization "baseline requirements for a set of certifications around managed services, SaaS, cloud and virtual skills."

"We get several calls per week around SaaS, cloud and virtual skills that companies want guidance on considering we are the vendor-neutral party," Erdle explains. "CompTIA is working now on building certifications programs to release in 2010 and get in front of this growing demand."

Deliver advanced data centers

In the wake of the recession, companies won't abandon the lessons learned from over-provisioning or spending needlessly on excess infrastructure resources, for instance. Designing and delivering cost-efficient, consolidated data centers will top the list of many IT leaders and finding employees experienced in the areas of virtualization energy-efficient computing will be critical to their success during the economic recovery.

"There is huge demand right now for a lot of the skills around data center moves and consolidations. There are skills lacking in virtualization technologies and even network technology that they need to understand to support next-generation data centers," Bluewolf's Kirven says. "Add data center security and disaster recovery skills to that list and the ideal candidate would need to be very well versed in the many technologies that make up data centers of the future."

As companies continue to invest in virtualization, the demand for IT professionals experience in designing virtual data centers will also grow. According to Foote Partners, virtualization continues to land on the research firm’s hot list of technologies and related skills.

"There has been a lot of spending around virtualization skills already," Foote says.

Companies today are seeking talent in virtualization and employment watchers expect the existing numbers to only continue to grow.

"We have more than 1,000 jobs on the site right now that call for understanding virtualization and how that technology can be applied to a company's infrastructure," Dice.com's Silver adds, "If you have experience in virtualization, if you essentially know how you can help your company's data center run more efficiently, then you are already in demand."

Looking ahead

Industry watchers report IT staffs could remain lean in the coming months and that economic recovery might not indicate a full job recovery to pre-recession numbers. That doesn't mean there isn't opportunity for IT professionals to expand their careers and take advantage of the opportunity to become a critical part of their company's business in the long-term, according to Gartner's Mok

"IT departments during the downturn were very cautious about where they reduced and more organizations plan to keep staffing levels flat for a period of time. As the recovery continues, they might not even add too much, so I don't think we will ever go back to the big IT departments of 2000 or 2001," she says. "But companies realize today that these business-savvy technology skill sets take time to develop and they are doing a better job of workforce planning and training staff on the technologies they feel their business will need in the future."

Some IT watchers argue that high-tech remains a successful career option for many. The fact that many jobs remained open during the recession points to a continued need for high-tech talent, and job seekers should consider this a positive sign going forward, researching in what vertical market the skills they possess are most in demand.

"We've seen throughout the recession the interesting phenomenon of unfilled jobs even though people are actively looking for work. That is just one measure of the skills gap," Deloitte's Schwartz says. "The job market is different than in boom time, and the problem remains to be about matching available skills to open positions."

And while some say the future for IT professionals continues to look promising, they are quick to point out that it also looks very different from the past.

"Market influences such as outsourcing and budget strain is forcing clarity on how money is spent on high-tech talent," says Adam Lawrence, vice president of service delivery at Yoh Talent Solutions. "Ultimately it comes down to the worker to move up the value chain from being a great coder to becoming an architect savvy in the business, for instance. Technology workers must know how the business is intricately underpinned with technology and use their technical talent toward making the business a bigger success."

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