Expand skills to improve career prospects, IT pros urged

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Technology workers should consider taking non-computer science courses in a quest to expand their skill sets and improve their career prospects, career specialists say.

In today’s ever changing workplace, it’s always best to broaden your scope of knowledge, according to Tom Keenan, professor at the faculty of environmental design at the University of Calgary.

He is involved in several interdisciplinary educational programs for people aged 16 to 65.

People working in the IT field for some time, Keenan said, “probably know most of the technical things they need [to].”

In some cases, he said, getting more technical education may not be the sharpest career move.

“My advice is to mix it up,” Keenan said. “Take anything but computer science.”

He offered these suggestions during a presentation entitled: Go Back to School In Anything but Computer Science.

The talk was part of the topics discussed at the recently concluded Informatics 2007 – Energizing the IT Professional conference in Toronto.

Keenan noted there is currently a growing interest in the environment and sustainable strategies as well as security and privacy issues. These areas are also increasingly using technology.

Rather than enrolling in another IT certification course, employees might want to consider taking environmental or bioinformatics subjects, he said.

Other potential fields of study mentioned by the professor include: genetics, industrial design, business management, psychology and philosophy.

As an example, Keenan cited a lawyer in mid-career who decided to take up religious studies in the hope of identifying ways to incorporate Buddhist doctrines of compassion into the Canadian criminal code. “Good ideas emerge when two or more thoughts cross paths, not by doing more of the same.”

The main idea, he said, is to gain a broader understanding of the business environment where existing tech knowledge is being applied.

Traditionally companies encouraged promising IT professionals to take up more technology related or management courses to help them manage their career path. Keenan said, in some instances this might not be ideal.

He said companies such as IBM, Cisco and Symantec were among the firms to first realize that promoting a tech person to a management position could be the worst thing you could do for some employees. “Certain IT professionals are simply not cut out to be managers.”

Realizing this, he said, these companies developed ways to recognize an employee’s contribution with commensurate financial rewards and challenges, but without the added managerial burden.”IBM developed the position of ‘member of tech staff’ while Cisco and Symantec introduced the title of ‘fellow’ that enabled workers to continue research and other productive ventures.”

A Canadian IT industry analyst also believes IT workers need to develop “soft skills” but notes that such initiatives are often hampered by financial and time constraints.

Gaining knowledge about the business-side of an organization is important, especially for developers working on applications, according to Andy Woyzbun, lead analyst with Info-Tech Research Group Inc. of London, Ont.

He acknowledged that “it’s not how the technology is deployed, but whether or not a business transformation was accomplished with the deployment.”

Additional education, however, takes time and money, said Woyzbun.

For instance, securing an executive MBA can cost more than $80,000.

Taking a one week intensive training course at a university in such areas as human resources, marketing or other fields could set back a person by as much as $8,000.

Companies are hesitant to shoulder such expenses, except for their “star employees”, Woyzbun said.

Most IT professionals, who do take the plunge, are bogged down by competing work and family pressures according to the analyst.

“When I took my MBA, some of my classmates who dropped out said they couldn’t cope with the combined demands on their time by family, job and studies.”

Thankfully, there are alternatives, he said.

Rather than immerse oneself in a full-blown program, Woyzbun suggests, IT workers can take continuing education or night courses in a variety of subjects offered by community colleges and universities.

These institutions offer a range of programs that provide certificates and diplomas upon completion. Most classes are offered at night or during weekends and programs can be taken at the student’s pace.

Cheaper than master’s programs, these courses also offer students a greater choice of in choosing the subjects to enroll in.

Woyzbun suggests also taking individual classes.

In most cases, organizations only require certificates for IT course and technical training but allow employees more latitude with so-called “soft skills” studies, he said.

Employees should take advantage of courses or even lunch-and-learn topics offered for free by their employer.

Another low-cost alternative is to buy books or visit the public library and read up on topics that apply to your area of interest, he added.

“The important thing to keep in mind is to find the method that suits you and your desire to move ahead,” Woyzbun said.

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