Why you need to evolve for a hot IT job

Let’s face it: the job situation may be better than it was two years ago, but it’s still not great. While we’ve come out of an economic downturn (sort of), there’s talk of a potential double-dip recession in the coming year. And some say many of the IT jobs that were eliminated during the recession are simply not coming back, thanks to trends such as cloud computing.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for IT professionals. Like anything else in life, the only constant is change, and the IT industry is continuing to evolve and transform. While some areas of IT are becoming automated, outsourced or headed to the cloud, those IT professionals who evolve and transform with the industry can make themselves indispensable to their organization.

According to Robert Half Technology, the job situation is improving, but in a recent survey only 12 per cent of respondents said they plan to increase staff levels during the first quarter of 2011, while 88 per cent said staff levels would remain flat or decline.

Overall, the Canadian economy is expected to perform at 2.4 per cent GDP growth, according to recently revised stats from IDC Canada. “2010 grew more quickly than we anticipated, while 2011 is not growing as fast as we anticipated,” said Dave Senf, research director of infrastructure solutions with IDC Canada.

But 2011 is still in positive territory, he said, though there is always the potential for a double-dip recession. The European sovereign debt crisis and U.S. economy could drag us down further, he said, and that has an impact on IT jobs.

“We’re clearly still in tough economic times for IT in general,” said Andy Woyzbun, lead research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. A lot of the IT jobs lost during the recession will never come back, thanks to factors such as outsourcing and the increased availability of cloud services.

Many IT departments are pushing back against the cloud for obvious reasons – and, in some cases, valid reasons. But the emergence of the cloud also means that more mature practitioners, those who excel at vendor management, are going to be increasingly valuable in organizations that are increasingly dependent on the cloud.

“IT is not off the hook,” said Woyzbun. “Instead of managing a group of people or internal facilities, you now have to manage external providers. It’s not an area that people normally think about, but that’s going to be an important area.”

While the cloud is a hot technology trend, it’s also an emerging career opportunity for IT professionals, and not necessarily a threat, as some perceive it to be.

When IDC Canada asked IT professionals if they viewed the public cloud as a threat to their employment, only five per cent saw it as a threat, while 40 per cent viewed it as an opportunity for career growth.

“2011 is an important year for building skill sets for cloud,” said Senf. And there are a number of skill sets required for IT professionals to further their career in this area. These include security policy design, software integration between internal applications and public cloud APIs, repatriation skills (to get data back in-house from the cloud), service-level agreement monitoring, management and resolution skills, project management and business analysis.

With the cloud comes the growing area of network administration. “That whole area is not only growing, but requiring a much more broadly trained or experienced network administrator,” said Woyzbun. “It’s not enough to understand how to use routers. The broader folks understand all of the aspects of networks, including telephony and videoconferencing.”

Rather than deploying applications themselves, IT professionals can make themselves indispensable by helping C-level executives understand the impact of different types of cloud solutions, not that deploying solutions in-house goes away. But they can help the business understand what this new architecture looks like and which applications should be in a private cloud versus a public cloud, and help navigate areas such as data security and return on investment.

Another area undergoing big changes is “smart” infrastructure, which not only connects non-traditional end devices to the network (such as air conditioners, lighting and video surveillance systems), but it can help buildings become greener and more energy-efficient through the integration of sustainable technologies.

We’re seeing the convergence of networks onto a single IP network, but, like cloud computing, this will require mature IT practitioners who can manage this new infrastructure, from security to quality of service.

“I think we’ll see a revolution in the construction industry in this country,” said Dr. Robert Luke, AVP of applied research and innovation with George Brown College. The college is currently working on a project in partnership with Cisco Systems Canada Co. involving smart building technology, an emerging area for IT professionals.

“We’re going to retrofit one of our buildings as a test bed, and we’re working actively with the construction industry to prepare not just regular trades, but also to ensure there’s an inter-professional integration of building trades and computer skills,” said Luke. “It’s not an IT project and it’s not a building project. It’s a building automation project.” National Research Council Canada and university labs across the country are also doing research into sustainable building materials.

“Innovation is not invention,” said Luke. “It’s not necessarily making something new; it’s making something new to you. It’s about how we train the next generation of computer scientists and carpenters. It’s about envisioning the future.”

During the recession, the manufacturing sector was hardest hit, followed closely by the construction industry, according to IDC Canada. But during the recovery, construction has been one of the fastest-growing sectors. Health care has experienced positive growth, said Senf, while the public sector will continue to spend and remain steady. Business services are more volatile, since they’re strongly linked to how much consumers and businesses are willing to spend. “The jobs in 2011 are strongly linked to economic performance,” he said.

Then there’s the issue of demographic change. In the next five years, 40 per cent of the skilled labour force is going to retire, said John Reid, president and CEO of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATAAlliance).

Just about every sector is now a high-tech sector, and that means companies are chasing similar skill sets. But during the downturn, we also saw cutbacks in internships and in-house apprenticeships, which have set up a dynamic of skill shortages or imbalances as we move forward.

Colleges, however, are expanding their training to address the skill sets that will be required in the high-tech sector. Areas where we’re going to see a demand for more sophisticated IT skills include security (thanks to new privacy regulations and issues surrounding public safety), as well as health care and alternate energy.

“It’s less about a hot job and more about a set of quantitative skills,” said Reid. Employers are looking for IT professionals with a diversity of skills, who also understand social media and the new ways the world works.

Luke calls this “innovation literacy,” which involves problem-solving, entrepreneurial thinking and process development skills. Innovation literacy is a transferable skill set that’s relevant to the jobs of today, but also the jobs of tomorrow. IT professionals have to understand the uses of technology, as well as its non-uses, he said. And that fits into the larger perspective of being able to produce downstream economic improvements, no matter what your discipline.

The concept behind innovation literacy extends to a number of areas, such as the “Webification” of applications (taking an existing application and linking it to social media). “We see tremendous interest in the development of applications for smart phones, for tablets,” said Woyzbun. “That whole area, at least in the near future, will be high demand.”

We’re also seeing more virtual desktops being deployed, and that could have an impact on traditional PC administration jobs. That job now extends beyond desktop PCs and laptops to include everything from thin clients to tablets to smart phones.

For IT professionals, the scope of the job is changing, which is a great opportunity, but it’s also a challenge. And that means they have to continually re-educate themselves, said Woyzbun. “The bottom line is, although some of these areas are exciting, if you don’t grow, if you don’t retrain yourself, you may find yourself replaced.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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