The softer side of IT

At 27 years of age, Janet has completed an undergraduate degree in engineering, studied computer science and technology at the MBA level and managed to squeeze a couple of years work experience in between.

Brimming with credentials, she’s thirsting for knowledge, hungry for success and intent on learning whatever she doesn’t already know.

That’s not to mention her excellent communication skills, solid teamwork ability and tremendous mental capacity.

Who is Janet? She is Eugene Roman’s ideal candidate for employment. And Bell Canada’s vice-president of Infostructure and Web enablement has found her.

“She is what I call a sponge…she just sucks it in, trying to figure out which way is up, what works and what doesn’t work, and what she doesn’t know. She’s hugely refreshing. And she is an excellent example of the type of people we are looking for.”

He, and everyone else for that matter.

The shopping list of demands for highly-qualified IT professionals is getting longer. Consensus is it’s not enough to find someone who possesses range of highly technical skills and simply hope the rest falls into place.

A whole new list of softer skills is being sought, thanks largely to two factors: the emergence of technology on the business front and the renewed customer focus created therein.

Gone are the days when computers were just a back-room function that supported payroll and accounting, said Jim McKeen, chair of the MBA program for Science and Technology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“Information technology is very much a part of the business, if not the entire business in many cases. We have to cross this chasm. We have to have the technologists who know the business and the business people who know the technology,” he said.

But even business-savvy and the ability to write code are not enough.

Anne McKenna, senior manager of North American resourcing for Brampton, Ont.-based Nortel Networks Corp., explained, “In the past, to hire a designer or someone to write code we just needed the technical skills.

“Now…(with the) emphasis on our customer, our designers and everyone [else] from the bottom to the top of the company needs to have great communication skills because whether you’re at the top or the bottom, you’re interfacing with the customer at some point in time.”

This demands not only communication skills, say the experts, but teamwork, understanding and creativity — attributes not traditionally taught in educational institutions. Until now, that is.

Post-secondary institutions are taking up the industry’s call to devote more attention to developing the people skills of students seeking to join the IT profession. This is seen as an attempt to swell the shortages felt across the country.

A report by the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training indicates that the demand for graduates of high-tech computer science and engineering programs far exceeds the supply. And while two-thirds of job creation has been in the sectors of high-technology and knowledge-intensive industries, they account for only 39 per cent of employment.

In response to the Ontario government’s Access to Opportunities Program (ATOP), established to encourage growth in computer science related programs, Toronto’s York University has launched three information technology (ITEC) degree programs that go beyond traditional computer science curriculum to include some of the desired social skills.

The three programs include: a Bachelor of Arts degree that combines computer science and the liberal arts with a focus on the social implications of computer technology; an Honours Bachelor of Administrative Studies degree that allows students to combine IT courses with accounting, business research, general management, human resources or marketing; and a three- or four-year Bachelor of Arts degree in IT that incorporates humanities and social sciences.

According to George Fallis, dean of the Faculty of Arts at York University, the ITEC programs scheduled to begin this September are a direct response to industry needs.

“We’d been hearing particularly from students who, having held a job for two or three years in a…computer science field, state that they could only go so far in their jobs and they felt a real need for being able to write or communicate, but also to be able to explain the technology they were working on, the relationship to public policy or the way the company was developing.”

Denis Therien, professor of physics and director of the School of Computer Science at McGill University in Montreal, Que., said simply knowing C++ is not enough because there will always be a different technology on the horizon. And although organizations are beginning to recognize this fact now, he said, it did take time for people to come to this conclusion. In the past, McGill’s insistence on foundations was not always welcome.

“We were often criticized for this over the years by students, by the companies, by the higher levels of the university, (but) it seems this is in the process of changing. There is now a deeper understanding of the importance of foundation material in a computer science degree,” Therien explained.

This need has also been recognized by Queen’s University’s MBA program for Science and Technology, another of the country’s modern programs geared toward the changing breed of IT professionals.

“We don’t teach science and technology…we teach management,” McKeen said.

And they do so in a different way. Closing the door on a two-year residential MBA program in 1996, the school began a new, fully-private, one-year MBA program for science and technology.

“We didn’t see that sort of old, general management two-year MBA as being the wave of the future.” McKeen said. “In a high-tech environment two years out is like an eternity.”

Designed for 60 students per year, the new program requires that individuals have either a science or technology background. On average, McKeen said, students also bring with them about six years of work experience.

And because the “old, general management” style is on its way out the door, the program focuses on properly equipping the managers of the future with teamwork, communication skills, leadership, business strategies and creativity.

Teamwork is so important, McKeen said, that students are placed in 10 teams of six, each with maximum diversity and the requirement to stay together throughout the year. Between 60 and 70 per cent of the students’ evaluations are based on team performance, and “there are no outs,” McKeen said. “As bright as you are, you cannot do well in this program unless you can get the team’s level of performance up.”

Such inter-personal skills are vitally important to the success of IT workers, said Bell’s Roman. When he was vice-president of enterprise systems and technologies at Nortel Networks, he hired several of Queen’s MBA graduates.

“The biggest problem historically is that very highly-technical people are not necessarily trained to work well with others. The requirement of the network era is that both have to be operative. It’s not only technical skills, but people skills that are required,” he said.

This ever-increasing need for softer skills has evolved through a closer relationship between the technology and the user, said Jules Fauteux, director of recruiting and resource manager for the Canadian division of DMR Research.

“The technology and the user are becoming more intimate so that the individual who is facilitating the relationship doesn’t need to focus so much on technology anymore,” Fauteux said. “Users are smarter and more demanding and in order to serve the user, the IT professional needs to be more user-oriented and less oriented to the technology.”

But what does this mean for those referred to as techies or geeks, those interested in the technology with little desire to get in touch with their so-called softer sides?

They are still a valuable part of the organization, Roman said, but can expect to be outnumbered by the emerging group of IT professionals who seem to have it all. The profile is changing because the job is changing, he explained.

“In the old days, mainframe-centric days, you could have highly-technical people who never talked to anybody because they were working in a data centre and the holy grail of mainframe computing protected them.

“(But) that era passed us somewhere in the ’80s. It became very prevalent in the ’90s that it was time for IT to be able to talk business talk and not just technology for technology sake. You need people who can actually present a business case and then project manage it to completion,” Roman explained.

DMR’s Fauteux agreed that although it is increasingly important to have a balance of technology and people skills, “there is still room for the nerd. It just requires that you appreciate the nerd for what he or she is and that you understand what he or she isn’t, and that you make sure to compensate for that in some way.”

Often times, Fauteux noted, they can be the most effective people in certain situations. “They have critical knowledge that people need to apply in solutions to clients.”

That said, however, the challenges of the future are such that IT professionals hoping to achieve a management position will require much more. With the network age comes a changing environment, and with that changing environment comes a leader who can motivate and paint a picture of the organization’s needs, Roman said.

Like Janet, individuals who can manage the rapid change of the future and still possess a combination of the technical and social skills are worth their weight in gold, he noted.

“That’s the kind of people that, with a little bit of support, a little bit of positive coaching, can become vice-presidents in their 30s. Those are the vice-presidents we’re looking for.”