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IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
11:05 AM
Jim Ditmore
Jim Ditmore

How To Build The Right IT Skills

Every IT pro, no matter how senior, must always be in learning mode, but especially in a lackluster economy.

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The IT job market, while brighter than most others, remains stagnant overall. The InformationWeek 2012 IT Salary Survey revealed that median total compensation crept up 1% to 2%. The bright spots are in rising new specialties such as mobility and big data, as well as information security and several other areas.

Even though IT unemployment stands at about half the general unemployment rate of more than 8%, every IT pro needs to build the right skills to become more productive and valuable to employers or prospective employers. Below I define both the primary skills that are in demand as well as some time-tested complementary skills, drawing from my more than 20 years improving the staffs and engineering capabilities of multiple large organizations.

Before I dive in, it's worth noting that it has been more difficult to get additional skills and training in the past few years as budgets and discretionary project funding have dried up. Yet the pace of technology introduction, from smartphones to tablets to big data to appliances to cloud computing to consumerization, has accelerated. Keep in mind that an IT engineer or manager who not only understands these new technologies but also can deliver solutions in complex business settings is far more valuable than an expert focused on one aspect of the technology portfolio.

[ Doing your job perfectly may not be a great career move. Read CIOs: Don't Get Taken For Granted. ]

So how do you go about building a stronger suite of skills and experience? The journey depends, of course, on where you are and where you want to go. I'll assume two potential destinations: either a senior IT management position, including CIO/CTO, or a principal engineer. Now let's look at the appropriate skills to add based on where you are now.

Junior Staff

If you are just starting out or are a junior staff member, focus on building your first core expertise. Leverage your position to "go deep." If you are a junior analyst, consider working toward a business analyst certification, such as a CCBA. If you are a desktop or LAN engineer, make sure that you understand the configurations and architectures of your company's infrastructure. Take the training and classes and work to achieve your certifications in the area of your expertise (for example, for the desktop engineer, attain your MCTS). Augment your technical understanding by subscribing to industry publications. Become familiar with foundational elements of IT such as ITIL and CMMI.

As you practice your chosen area of expertise, try to learn a specific business area as part of your work. This may not always be possible, but it's worthwhile to gain an understanding of how the business works. And don't forget to be a valued team member: Volunteer for assignments that will challenge you, learn as much as you can about the systems you're working on, and do your work with energy and quality (you're building your reputation).

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Midlevel Staff

For those with midlevel expertise, now's the time to branch out to adjacent technical areas. Invariably, IT problems occur between two layers of the stack. For example, if you know networking, add server or information security. If you understand middleware, add DBMS. If you know application development, add DBMS or testing. If your goal is to become a principal engineer, pursue master level certification in your areas of expertise--e.g., earn an MCITP in Windows or a CCIE (versus a CCNA) in networking.

If your goal is to become a CTO or CIO, then as a mid-level staffer you need to work on becoming a strong team leader. Consider:

-- adding project management skills and enhancing your communication skills;
-- improving your influence and conflict resolution skills;
-- learning how to formulate thorough and compelling business cases or solutions; and
-- taking on key project or program leadership roles.

The midlevel IT professional should fully understand ITIL and CMMI, as well as become familiar with process improvement approaches (e.g., lean or CPI. In addition, approach your job with the energy and quality that reflects your workmanship and pride. Take on some of the tough assignments as well as the drudge tasks in your area. And demonstrate stewardship of your team's processes by improving them (even if that just means documenting them). Your initiative won't go unnoticed and it will open the door for more senior opportunities down the road.

As you mature in your mid-level role, seek out a mentor to provide more personalized advice and a second perspective. If your goal is to become a principal engineer, look for opportunities to contribute at the industry level. Join relevant organizations and contribute to forums advancing the practice.

Senior Staff

If you're now working at a senior level, you've already accomplished a great deal. But if you don't have a clear path to your goal of becoming CIO or principal engineer, then it's time for some reflection and self-awareness. Reach out to trusted colleagues as well as a coach or mentor to help you identify competencies to work on. A seminal self-help book is FYI: For Your Improvement, A Guide For Development And Coaching, by Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger.

This is the time to develop an effective leadership style that matches you and drives high performance. Polish your communication skills, especially in front of large groups. Consider your Power Distance Index and approachability, and work on your dialog skills (read Crucial Conversations).

Take advantage of opportunities to rotate through other areas of the IT organization (infrastructure versus applications versus operations), as CIOs and CTOs need to have broad skills.

Even in this tough economy, opportunities abound for those with outstanding skills, experience, and leadership. What other skills or experience would you add to this roadmap? Weigh in with a comment below.

See why NEC's network controller and eight other products stood out at Interop 2012 in the new, all-digital Best of Interop issue of InformationWeek. (Free registration required.)

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