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Technology takes backseat to business skills, IT consultant says

Author of The IT Career Builder's Toolkit Matt Moran is a consultant specializing in IT staff development, automated workflow and document assembly applications, and business process reengineering. Moran counsels IT pros on honing certain skills -- such as effective communication, project development and business acumen -- to enhance their cachet in the job market. spoke with Moran about which skills and strategies IT pros should focus on to further their careers.

Your emphasis isn't on the technology side of IT careers, but rather on "soft" skills like communication.
I call them "transferable skills." If you took IT out of my book, most people who've read it say that it's like What Color Is Your Parachute? It's a proactive career strategy book. The reason I hit on the IT part so much is because there is this huge emphasis on the next skill that you learn. I say that the next hot technology is business acumen. And it's always been the next hot technology.

I'm not discounting the importance of being technically good. In my book, I'm often expressing the importance of value and effectiveness being more important than how good you are. But I think that they're tied together. I am a technical person, [so] I think that I'm qualified to speak to this because I write code, I write SQL applications, I work with clients to develop solutions; I'm not just some PR person off the seat of my pants trying to tell an IT person how to build a career. What kinds of roadblocks get in the way of an IT professional's career advancement?
In the IT world, there is a lot of skepticism from people who they feel can't empathize with them. No one understands what they do, but they still have to promote their value. A lot of what I'm trying to do is say, "This is the way that business management perceives you, and this is what you need to do to make that perception show you in the most positive light. It's the way you communicate and the way you look at it."

At the risk of being sacrificed on the altar of people who feel that they are so dramatically different, that's what I believe. And I bear this out in my own career. I've been able to use skills to write marketing copy, for example; things that I don't theoretically have the training for. But I have skills that I believe transcend a specific discipline.

There was a study done in 2001 by KPMG and Computerworld that basically pointed out that executive management feels that their IT pros rarely try to understand the business need for the technology. And even worse, a large portion of them actually express a distrust of IT professionals. They believe that IT pros use a bunch of jargon to hide overruns and things like that.

What I tell IT pros is that they are most likely not part of the problem; they're not doing that. But the perception is there. And so you will have to deal with this perception during the course of your career. How can they overcome this perception?
Tell the CEO that he needs to be looking at their IT department as being valuable and that it can provide strategic value to a company. It's not effective to go to IT pros and say, "Well, those CEOs really don't understand you" or "Those users don't really understand you." The fact is that IT pros have great skills that provide great value to an organization. If you can learn to position [these skills], you can take advantage of that and reap great rewards. The message is to be very proactive and take advantage of your career.

The other message I talk about is matching agendas. Everyone has an agenda. There are things that I want to accomplish and have happen. I need to find an organization where my agenda matches theirs, or else [I'm] going to be frustrated. But what if the IT market is tight? How do you find a matching agenda?
I have a very positive outlook of IT careers. Back during the dot-com bust, people were saying that all the jobs were going to India or to China. The fact is, they aren't. Are jobs being outsourced? Sure. But are those places having the same problems with talent and infrastructure? Absolutely. Just because there are lots of bodies available that have gone through training doesn't mean they solve problems.

On the flip side, why are they going outside to get those skill sets? Maybe they're saving money, but that's not the biggest issue. It might be for an organization where cost is the only issue, in which case you don't want to work for them anyway.

I also write a lot about what I call the economy of one. The fact is, if the economy is booming and there is less than 5% unemployment and you're unemployed, your economy of one is 100% unemployment. It doesn't matter where the rest of the country is at. I wrote the book coming out of the dot-com bust, and I would ask people if they thought there were no jobs out there -- because I believed that there were. I know for sure, because I was always able to find work. What is the next step?
A proactive strategy. Find a business park and start talking to companies. I'm not going to wait for a job opportunity to show up. I'm going to gather names, talk to people; whatever it takes to get my name in circulation. I know that there are a lot of people in the IT field who aren't comfortable talking to people. To that I say that there is a whole litany of job skills that I cover in the book. Being able to network effectively is one of them. To the degree that you master that skill -- even if it's uncomfortable to you -- is the degree to which you'll achieve greater success because you broaden your total skill set. We've talked about some of the less visible skills that IT pros need. But what kinds of technical skills do you see as being valuable?
I definitely see a pretty good understanding of what service is not going away anytime soon. Conceptually understanding that is going to be critical, whether it's .NET or whatever flavor you decide. I look at .NET as being key.

Security is going to be key as well. That's an area that's not going away anytime soon. In fact, they kind of go hand in hand: more transparency for internal systems with things like Web services and interactive service in financial systems feeds right into a need for and an understanding of comprehensive security from policy to implementation -- not just network security.

That's really what I'm looking at from a hard technical standpoint -- and the ability to see the impact on the organization. Also, it is important to be able to tie what you do to some financial aspect of the company. I tend to tie it to revenue generation at some point. But I always go back to the ability to understand what drives business, in particular the department you're doing the project for or how your department fits in supporting those business units to get the job done. Anything else you'd like to add?
Want ads and job boards are particularly ineffective for finding jobs. I believe that you need to meet the people who will ultimately bring you into the best job possible. People say that's not always realistic. But I can tell you that I've never gotten a job from a want ad or job board. Every job I've ever had has either come from someone I know or direct contact.

Consider an employer who wants to find talent. The very first place they go is internal. Can I find someone in here that can take on this responsibility? The reason is that they have a known commodity. There's little risk because they know the person. The second place they go are to other people they've worked with in the past. Again, a known commodity. "I've worked with this guy, he'd be a good fit, let's bring him over." The next place they go is referrals. "Do you know somebody who would fit in this role?" Even to the point that they'll pay their employees if they refer someone into the company and they stay there. Why? Because they're counting on their employees realizing that it's a reflection on them.

When they've exhausted every other possibility, they go to the most risky proposition: the open market. It's not pleasing for them, it costs them a lot of money, they have to weed through a ton of people and they don't know what they're getting. I try to paint that picture from an employer point of view. When you come to an employer through a want ad, you're one in 500, and you're a scary person to them. Now, it's an uphill battle to get the kind of job and compensation you want.

Try meeting an employer somewhere else on that ladder: through a referral or direct contact. Go out into the neighborhood and places where those people are. Get involved with other groups, professional organizations, something that you like to do in your community even if you already have a job. You'll find out that you're meeting business owners and other professionals. You've heard the phrase "It's not what you know; it's who you know." What I say is "It's not who you know; it's who knows you and knows what you know." What you want is someone in a meeting somewhere saying that they need a person to handle a certain part of their technology but they're having trouble finding someone. You want that person to say, "I know someone." The next thing you know, you're getting a call out of the blue to talk to them.

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