Future-proof your IT career: 8 tech areas that will still be hot in 2020

It’s prudent for IT pros to cultivate skills that are in high demand. Even better are skills that will stay in demand. Here are eight key technology areas that show no signs of falling out of favor.

future proof your IT career
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Position yourself for long-term growth

Smart companies have a corporate roadmap that spells out where they'd like to be three, five and 10 years out, how they're going to get there, and how technology fits into that vision. As a smart IT professional, can you say how your skills and position figure into your company's plans -- or the industry's as a whole?

Sure, organizations will still need programmers and developers, but they'll want (and pay better salaries to) programmers who know how to work with robots and developers who know how to apply their craft to wearable devices. So, yes, while labor market experts expect that IT as a whole will continue to add good jobs through 2020 and beyond, savvy tech pros are taking pains to ensure their personal roadmap is steering them towards concentrations with maximum longevity.

What follows are some specialties worth pursuing to future-proof your tech career.

cloud computing
Wanted: Programmers, security experts, cloud capacity managers

More than 90% of U.S. companies are using some form of cloud computing, according to CompTIA's most recent Trends in Cloud Computing study. Moreover, the November 2014 report found that companies are moving infrastructure or applications between private and public clouds. IT leaders predict that movement will accelerate in the future, which will generate a host of cloud-centric jobs, including cloud security.

A related position will be dedicated to cloud capacity management. "We expect many [organizations] will operate in a hybrid environment, a mix of private and public cloud, so the question becomes how to dynamically switch demand for compute and storage from private and public clouds," says Mike Sutcliff, group chief executive for Accenture Digital. "That's going to require new techniques and disciplines that many IT organizations don't have in place today."

Programmers skilled in Perl, Ruby, Ruby on Rails and Python, Java and JavaScript, as well as those comfortable with API development and a DevOps environment, will also be in high demand, because cloud technology depends heavily on those disciplines. (See 10 hot cloud computing skills for details.)

analytics
Wanted: Data architects, integration experts, Hadoop pros

Cliff Justice, leader of KPMG's Shared Services and Outsourcing Advisory practice, says organizational needs around analytics will be huge, driven partly by the sheer volume of data collected but also by the increasing number of applications (such as robotics) fueled by analytical output. As a result, companies are adding and creating IT positions to handle the work.

According to Barry Brunsman, principal in KPMG's CIO Advisory Management Consulting practice (pdf), you'll see roles like these: Data architects, who design the structure to support emerging needs; data integration engineers, who ensure that data solutions and analytics from any number of sources can be integrated; and IT planning analysts, who aggregate and analyze data from many internal and external sources to help IT know what its business partners are likely to need in the future.

Technical titles that are and will remain hot include Hadoop developer, data engineer, big data software architect and enterprise data architect, says Christian P. Hagen, a partner with the Strategic IT Practice at management consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

At the same time, organizational demands around analytics will create a new batch of leadership positions tasked with understanding how to use analytics to achieve goals and objectives. "Analytics won't mean just working with tools. Companies will need someone out in front, someone who can get at how analytics will transform the company and IT as well," Hagen says.

Hagen says leadership positions emerging in this field are chief analytics officer, chief data officer, chief digital officer, head of business analytics and vice president of enterprise data.

4 wearables
Credit: Ted Eytan
Wanted: Hardware, software, analytics experts

The 2014 PwC report The Wearable Future (pdf) sees a world where wearable devices will be used to train new employees, speed up the sales process, improve customer service, create hands-free guidance for workers and improve the accuracy of information collected to serve the growing analytics movement at companies everywhere.

Jack Cullen, president of IT staffing firm Modis, predicts the move to wearables could spur as much, if not more, new development as did the move to smartphones. "By the time 2020 rolls around, wearable devices could be as common as the iPhone today, and that creates all new opportunities," Cullen says.

Cullen expects that organizations of all kinds will identify workers and processes that could benefit from wearables, which it turn means IT departments will seek out technologists with the ability to deploy, manage and maintain hardware as well as experts who can develop, customize and support the applications and analytics programs that will make wearables useful within their specific organizations.

5 apis
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Wanted: Programmers to tap internal, external power of APIs

There's already plenty of buzz around application program interfaces (APIs) -- the sets of routines, protocols and tools that specify how software components should interact and facilitate access to Web-based applications.

Software vendors have been providing API for years, and now companies of all disciplines are making theirs public so other developers can design applications that interact with their original software. For that reason, the importance of APIs is about to explode. Companies will require more and more APIs to tap the power of emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things, robotics and artificial intelligence, as well as maximize value for existing tech-driven trends such as mobile connectivity.

IT shops will need professionals to actively develop and manage APIs for use within the organization and to connect with outside users, Accenture's Sutcliff says. These technologists need to have strong development skills as well as an understanding of data sources, data structures and the organization's applications portfolios. Sutcliff notes that this position won't be about one specific language or API, but more about assembling pieces together.

robotics
Credit: NASA
Wanted: Tech experts to lay the groundwork for enterprise AI/robotics

Artificial intelligence and robotics have already moved from science fiction to reality, and soon they'll be coming to a business near you. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report (pdf), these technologies "will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as healthcare, transportation and logistics, customer service and home maintenance."

Not surprisingly, technologists skilled in this area will be in high demand, says KPMG's Justice. He notes that IT professionals will have roles to play in programming, integrating and building out the infrastructure for organizational applications of AI and robotics.

IOT The Internet of Things
Credit: Hans Johnson
Wanted: In-the-weeds tinkerers and big-picture thinkers

Research firm IDC predicts in its Worldwide and Regional Internet of Things 2014-2020 Forecast that the global IoT market will grow from $1.9 trillion in 2013 to $7.1 trillion in 2020.

"Technology is being built into almost everything we have," says David Dodd, vice president of IT and CIO at Stevens Institute of Technology. That means a bright future for technologists who understand the underpinnings of this kind of connectivity. Indeed, IoT could breed a new specialist who can combine skills in hardware, engineering, programming, analytics, privacy and security.

Dodd, though, believes the IoT skill most in demand will be in understanding what value comes from all this connectivity. Organizations are realizing it's not enough to simply connect items and gather data, they need to know how those connections and the data they generate can solve problems or advance organizational goals. Companies "want people who can understand and formulate the future of IoT," he says.

security
Wanted: Broad and deep security chops

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a 37% growth in information security analyst positions between 2012 and 2022 for good reason -- all these emerging technologies are requiring, and will continue to demand, even more attention from an organization's security program.

"For all the great opportunities that social and mobile and cloud and analytics and the Internet of Things are going to bring, any economic gains that will be realized by all these new technologies can be undercut significantly if there aren't really robust security programs and protocols in place," says Matt Aiello, a partner in the Washington office of Heidrick & Struggles, which specializes in recruiting CIOs and senior-level technology, engineering and operations executives. Aiello and others say the security expert of the future will need to ensure that security is embedded in all levels.

visionary leadership
Credit: Saumil Shah
Wanted: "Digital artisans"

The pressure to be more than a pure technologist will continue in the upcoming years - and that means more than adding one or two business skills to your resume. Tech pros who successfully navigate the changes roiling the industry will be able to demonstrate business acumen across the spectrum, says R "Ray" Wang, founder and principal analyst with Constellation Research Inc. He calls these new specialists "digital artisans," explaining that they're "those who can balance right brain and left brain skills."

Middle-of-the-road products, services and solutions aren't enough to sustain companies in an increasingly competitive landscape, Wang says. To thrive in the next five to 10 years, organizations need to seek out talent "that can think outside of the box but execute within the system," he says. To deliver that kind of strategic value, IT pros need to be authentic, relevant, transformation-minded, intelligent, speedy, artistic and non-conformist. (Get it? A-R-T-I-S-A-N.)