IT professionals who are optimistic about IT careers say that despite the challenges posed by the economy, globalization, offshoring and technological change, it’s an exciting time to be in IT

IT career guide: Advice for IT professionals

Is an IT career a good idea right now?

Depending upon whom you ask, it’s both the best of times and the worst of times to pursue or maintain an IT career. The IT industry and corporate IT departments are undergoing dramatic changes due to the influence of social media and consumer technology, the recession and technological innovations such as cloud computing. The changes taking place in the industry and in corporate IT departments are, consequently, impacting the market for IT jobs, the skills needed to be successful in them, and IT salaries.

Those IT professionals who view their profession as a dead end cite the never-ending cycle of layoffs inside technology companies and corporate IT departments, offshoring, and corporations’ use of H-1B visa holders as “cheap” sources of high-tech labor as reasons to pursue new careers or caution young people against IT careers. They’re also fed up with the lack of appreciation the business shows to IT, the absence of work life balance that an IT career often demands, and downward pressure on their salaries.

On the other hand, the IT professionals who are optimistic about IT careers say that despite the challenges posed by the economy, globalization, offshoring and technological change, it’s an exciting time to be in IT. They believe that the IT jobs and IT careers of today and of the near future will make IT professionals more well-rounded employees and will better prepare them for careers in other business functions: As the structure of corporate IT departments change in response to cloud computing and as more technology gets pushed out to the business (as opposed to residing under the direct control of corporate IT), IT professionals will have more opportunity to rotate through positions in other business units.

Another reason why now is a good time to work in IT: Despite all the layoffs and outsourcing, some IT jobs seem to be getting more stable, and for some employers, the trend seems to moving away from short tenures to long tenures. Big, progressive companies want IT workers who’ll be with the organization for the long haul, because their knowledge of the company’s IT architecture will be so critical and hard to replace. Says State Street CIO Chris Perretta in the Computerworld article There’s More to an IT Career than Technology: “With the growing importance of architecture, companies realize how valuable highly tenured people are. We’re desperately looking for ways to attract people who are talented and want to stay for the long term. When we hire someone, we really want to hire them with the mind-set of belonging to the organization.”

People who wish to pursue IT careers now and in the future must be flexible and open to change. Members of Gen Y are in a particularly good position to move into IT careers, because they’re so familiar with the consumer technologies currently flooding enterprises.

A lot of U.S. IT jobs are being lost due to offshoring and the recession. What are the odds I’ll be able to get an IT job in this market, let alone keep one?

The IT job market is certainly better now than it was in 2009, but that’s not saying much. In general, the market for IT jobs at all levels of the career ladder is still not good. There are jobs available, but there aren’t a lot of them. Most employers remain largely reluctant to hire new full-time employees.

But data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and from employment surveys conducted over the summer indicate that the market for IT jobs may finally be starting to recover from the recession. The U.S. high-tech industry added 30,200 net new jobs during the first half of 2010, according to the TechAmerica Foundation (whose data is based on numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), after losing 115,000 jobs during the same period the year before. (Note that not all of these jobs lost and gained are technical jobs; they include sales and marketing jobs with technology, services and telecommunications companies.)

And despite fears of a double-dip recession, IT employment may very well pick up during the second half of 2010. A survey of 600 IT hiring managers and recruiters conducted by IT job search site Dice.com found that 71 percent plan to add staff in the second half of the year. A CDW survey showed that 37 percent of IT managers with large companies in the U.S. expect to hire more IT staff during the last six months of the year, compared with 26 percent in 2009.

What’s a career in IT like?

Let’s not sugarcoat it: IT jobs are demanding, fast-paced and stressful. They require long hours (50 to 60 hour work weeks are not uncommon for professionals at all levels of the IT career ladder, including the CIO) and entail lots of responsibility, yet they offer little recognition in return.

So why do IT professionals remain in their careers? Often it’s because they love working with technology and because the field tends to be a good match for their logical, analytical minds and their keen problem-solving skills.

What kinds of IT jobs might I pursue, and how are IT roles changing?

An IT career offers many options: You can work inside a corporate IT department, for a software or hardware manufacturer, an Internet or telecommunications company, or for a technology services company. Within those employers, there are a range of functional IT jobs you can pursue:

* Hardware Engineer
* Programmer/Software Developer/Software Engineer
* Project Manager
* Program Manager
* Systems Administrator
* Database Administrator
* Network Administrator
* Enterprise Architect/IT Architect
* Business Analyst
* IT Security Manager
* Business Continuity Manager
* Vendor Manager
* Vendor Relationship Managers
* IT Procurement Managers

(For even more IT jobs, see CIO.com’s list of Hot Jobs.)

Caveat: Not all of these IT jobs may be available for much longer inside corporate IT departments. In fact, some IT workforce experts predict that many discrete IT job functions (such as programming and network engineering) will disappear from corporate IT departments as cloud computing becomes more prevalent and technology grows more commoditized and embedded directly into the business. In some companies, such as Scottrade and Cummins, these trends have already reconfigured the IT department. (Obviously, software and IT services companies, for example, will still need programmers. For more information, see The Evolution of IT Jobs.)

Just as some IT jobs and job functions will fall out of favor, new jobs and roles will open up, such as the cloud architect, cloud capacity planner, cloud infrastructure administrator and integration architect. Business analysts, project managers and enterprise architects will remain critical roles. (Indeed, the enterprise or IT architect is quickly becoming one of the hottest IT jobs around.)

CIOs and IT employment experts predict that “IT jobs” will fall into two categories: roles that are very technical in nature and roles that are much more business-oriented. Where more technical roles exist in corporate IT departments today, there will be many more business specialists in the future.

The technical specialists that remain will be responsible for designing and maintaining an enterprise’s underlying IT framework or architecture, writes Computerworld’s Julia King in her article IT Careers 2020: Cloudy Days Ahead. She notes that they’ll also be responsible for “integrating a broader array of technologies and services into the overall enterprise infrastructure,” and that they’ll need to be well versed in virtualization, networking and IT security.

The role of business specialists will be to identify the specific technologies a company can use to make more money or run more efficiently. They will reside in the business.

“The work of the business specialists is matching the right IT tool to the business need at hand,” writes King. “These are super-IT-savvy business experts who understand how the business works, how transactions flow, what makes and loses money for the company, and where and how technology can help or hinder the business.”

Futurist Thornton May believes all of the best future IT career opportunities will be in the areas of business innovation, business analytics and risk management.

What skills are needed to be successful in an IT career?

IT skills are constantly falling in and out of fashion, but the technical skills that are in greatest demand today, according to Robert Half Technology, application/web development, database management, network adminisration, IT security, help desk/tech support, and virtualization. Talk with IT leaders and you’ll also hear that cloud computing skills are increasingly in demand.

IT managers need a mix of soft skills and technical skills to be successful. They need to be able to communicate effectively, build relationships with employees in other business functions, and lead and manage teams.

For CIOs, technical expertise now matters less while business savvy and leadership skills are requirements. CIOs require a deep understanding of their company’s business, how it makes or loses money, its market, competition and customers. They also need to be able to communicate effectively, in business terms, with their peers and with board members, and build relationships with these same constituents. CIOs identified long-term strategic thinking and planning, collaboration and influence, change leadership, and identifying and seizing on commercial opportunities as among their most critical leadership competencies according to CIO’s 2010 State of the CIO survey.

What IT certifications might improve my odds of landing a job or enhancing my career?

Many IT professionals seek out certifications to keep their skills sharp and to add credentials to their résumés that will help them stand out to prospective employers. IT professionals who take the time and invest the money to earn a certification show that they are invested in their careers, which often impresses IT hiring managers (especially since fewer and fewer employers pay for their employees to get certified).

Just as IT skills fall in and out of vogue, so too do IT certifications. Research company Foote Partners releases a survey of the hottest IT skills and certifications (i.e. the ones that demand the highest pay) every quarter. Recently, IT certifications from the following vendors ranked highly: Cisco (Cisco Certified Design Professional, Cisco Certified Network Professional), CompTIA (CompTIA Security+), HP (HP Accredited Systems Engineer), IBM (IBM Certified Administrator), Microsoft (Microsoft Certified Professional), RedHat (RedHat Certified Technician) and VMware (VMware certified professional.) Robert Half Technology also ranks Microsoft and Cisco certifications highly, along with the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute and the CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) certification.

When seeking certification, Dave Willmer, executive director of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology, advises IT professionals to choose credentials that align with their work experience. “In a highly competitive IT job market, the urge to enhance your résumé in any way possible is understandable,” Willmer wrote in the Computerworld article 7 IT Career Rules Worth Breaking. “To bolster your qualifications, you may be tempted to earn new certifications–any new certifications. But these credentials carry their full value only when they’re paired with experience. Choose training opportunities and certifications that realistically enhance your ability to help your current or next employer.”

In other words, if you’re a network engineer, opt for such certifications from Cisco, for example, as opposed to seeking a project management certification just because it’s hot and you think it will help make your resume stand out.

One drawback associated with technical certifications is that they’re just that: technical. They don’t measure an IT professional’s business acumen, writes Randy Dufault in the Computerworld article Let’s Certify Business Savvy, which is growing increasingly important to IT hiring managers.

Another criticism of certifications is that they produce “IT professionals on paper.” In some cases, an IT professional can earn a particular certification without having any meaningful work experience in that area. Critics of the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional (PMP) certification say it produces “paper project managers.”

Is the money good in an IT career? What are IT salaries like?

Good is a relative term. You probably won’t earn as much in IT as you would if you went into investment banking (unless, of course, you start the next Google or Facebook), but you will earn more than your average online journalist (cough).

Comparisons to other professions aside, IT professionals complain that their salaries aren’t what they used to be. Outsourcing, offshoring, H-1B visa holders, layoffs, pay freezes and high unemployment have placed tremendous downward pressure on IT salaries. Computer Economics, an IT research firm which conducts an annual IT salary survey, predicted meager pay increases (a median 1.8 percent across the board) for IT professionals in 2010.

So what are we talking about in terms of actual numbers? According to Robert Half Technology’s salary guide, the pay ranges for various IT jobs are:

* project managers: $75,000 to $111,500
* systems analysts: $65,250 to $92,250
* applications architects: $89,500 to $120,250
* business systems analysts: $63,250 to $93,250
* developers/programmer analysts: $57,000 to $99,250
* lead application developer: $81,500 to $112,000
* CIOs: $130,250 to $210,500 (Our State of the CIO salary data puts average CIO salaries at $219,300.)

I’m fed up with my corporate IT career. What other career paths might I consider, where my skills and background might be transferable?

IT professionals at all levels often turn to contracting or consulting after losing their jobs or upon deciding they’ve simply had enough of the corporate world. The move from IT practitioner to IT consultant is a mostly natural one: IT professionals use all of the skills and knowledge that they’ve honed over the years to solve a variety of clients’ problems.

One challenge that some IT professionals face upon moving into IT consulting and contracting is drumming up business. They may have the technical chops to solve any programming problem or the organization skills to get a flagging project back on track, but some IT pros lack the business development and back office accounting skills necessary to run one’s own business.

Of course, there are other career options open to IT professionals that take advantage of their skills. Janice Weinberg, a former IT executive and author of Debugging Your Information Technology Career, says IT professionals who’ve worked in healthcare might consider becoming healthcare administrators. She adds that network security administrators might consider parlaying their IT security expertise into the insurance industry, where they could move into cyber-liability insurance.

Another option–if you have good communication skills–is to get a job with an IT research company, such as Gartner Inc. or Forrester Research. These companies seem to like to hire individuals with practical IT experience.

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