Extra business skills can create safety net

Which part of 22-year-old Rupak Shah’s resume will most likely impress IT employers? Is it:

A) His computer science degree from the prestigious University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign?

B) The Chicago native’s skills in languages such as Java and Perl, and database programs such as SQL Server and MySQL?

C) The e-commerce Web site he started last year, for which he negotiates prices for his products (imported herbal supplements) with overseas suppliers?

Shah’s degree and technical skills might land him the interview. But his entrepreneurial skills and business savvy set him apart from the pack and bode best for his career, according to a new report released last month by the Society for Information Management (SIM).

Based on interviews with 96 SIM members, all of them IT managers at firms ranging from small companies to multinational enterprises, the study found that business skills accounted for five of the 10 attributes organizations want from their in-house staffers over the next three years. The other five most-requested skills by CIOs include a mix of project management and technical skills, though the latter are still client-facing.

“This is a long-standing issue,” said Kate Kaiser, an associate professor of IT at Marquette University in Milwaukee and the report’s primary author. “But it’s now more important than ever to have business skills. Companies are more aware than ever [about] what IT can do for them.”

In contrast to the layoffs and hiring freezes that graduates faced at the start of the decade after the dot-com crash, the overall IT workforce is expected to remain stable until at least 2008, according to the report.

While some jobs, especially technical ones at larger organizations, continue to be outsourced, the IT jobs most likely to be retained and created in-house will emphasize business and management skills such as business process re-engineering or project planning, rather than purely technical skills, according to the report. That offers great opportunities to young IT workers with the right skills and mindsets, said Kaiser.

She pointed to two former students who were promoted from programming to project management jobs in just two years rather than the five or more years such a climb typically requires. “The time period one spends as a programmer is becoming compressed,” she said.

“The average age of CIOs I meet today is five years younger than it was a decade ago,” said Stephen Pickett, president of SIM and the CIO of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based trucking company Penske Corp.

The trouble is that many young IT job seekers haven’t gotten the message. Many are less like Shah and more like Thomas Tanaka, a recent computer engineering graduate, also of the University of Illinois. Apart from some “intro econ classes,” the 26-year-old avoided taking business and management courses. “My technical courses already took up most of my time,” Tanaka said.

While the Santa Clara, Calif., resident has generally been looking for entry-level software jobs with IT vendors, he recently had an interview with a financial firm looking to fill an in-house IT position.

That’s where his lack of business background was exposed. “They didn’t ask me many technical questions during the interview,” Tanaka said, sheepishly.

IT managers are part of the problem, since they still offer mixed messages to job seekers. While continuing to hire entry-level workers mostly on their technical skills, CIOs told Kaiser that business and management skills — especially the ability to communicate well — are what they desire most from their in-house IT workers.

Even in the more technically specialized area of mainframe computing, business skills are essential, said Jim Michael, secretary of Share, a Chicago-based IBM mainframe user group.

“I don’t think the next generation of zSeries professionals should go and get a business degree,” Michael said. “But if you want to make a difference, you better be able to talk about how IT can drive business value.”

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