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Five career-advancing information technology skills

IT pros want to advance their careers. See which IT skills will enhance your worth this year, and the training and certifications that will propel you forward.

IT pros enhance their value to the enterprise with training and experience in five emerging disciplines.

A new year is underway and IT professionals should take advantage of new opportunities to build their skills. Most IT pros have some entry-level technical diplomas or certifications. But education is not a onetime effort; training is an ongoing process.

Whether it's writing new applications, securing the enterprise, rummaging through big data, managing an increasingly mobile workforce or moving to the cloud, IT staff can advance their careers and add real value to the business.

Industry insiders have these five information technology skill areas on their list of hiring priorities.

1. Coding and scripting skills

Executable coding and application development (in traditional languages like C++) now embrace new platforms and languages such as Java, Scala and Clojure app development optimizing applications for cloud deployments and mobility. Coding skills are in the spotlight.

"Developers and programmers that know and switch between multiple programming languages are often the most useful," said Chris Steffen, director of IT for Magpul Industries Corp.

DevOps practices are also changing the fundamental approach to software development and how development and operations staff interact. DevOps training is an ideal complement to specific language coding.

Essential automation tasks and efficient Windows systems management rely on PowerShell scripting, which uses a command line interface for granular control and script support for basic management automation.

"System admins would be wise to learn this valuable skill," Steffen said. "Nearly all of the Windows enterprise-class OS and management systems are PowerShell-based."

The proliferation of training options for software coding and PowerShell scripting skills can be confusing: college classes, online training, self-directed study and more. Weigh the extent of training, costs, time, effort and the need for formal or accredited completion.

2. Security and compliance skills

The frequency of high-profile cyberattacks and data thefts recently has underscored the need for stronger security skills. The IT security skill set is varied and there are numerous certifications that demonstrate competence.

Entry-level certifications like CompTIA Security+ and Global Information Assurance Certification's Security Essentials cover risk identification and mitigation, Wi-Fi protocols and preventing wireless attacks, password management, network access control, network protocols and mapping, identity management, authentication, physical security and basic cryptography, among others.

Advanced certifications include the International Information Systems Security Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and Certified Information Security Manager from ISACA.

"CISSP training is probably the best certification for anyone to have," said Tim Noble, IT director and advisory board member from ReachIPS. "It conveys a sense that you know how to deliver IT services and keep them running while protecting the data since you understand confidentiality, integrity and availability."

Advanced certifications cover network intrusion detection and prevention, security policies and procedures, security management and other higher-level issues.

IT security staff should have a basic understanding of the compliance issues that affect the security of the organization, such as HITECH Act and PCI DSS 3.0 standards related to data storage and retention, network access and other topics. This keeps security policies and procedures in line with compliance needs.

Comprehensive IT security degrees are available through major universities; however, specific entry-level and advanced certifications are obtained through a mix of self-study and online/instructor-led "boot camps." For compliance-related security education, investigate your business's regulations and determine suitable training options.

3. Database and analytics skills

Managing, analyzing, reporting and securing big data falls to an emerging group of data experts with a keen understanding of how databases and data stores work.

"Big data is here, and IT executives have to do something with it," Steffen said. "Data analysts can be report writers, [business intelligence] applet developers, [database administrators], or all three."

Steffen also notes that big data includes serious security and compliance concerns that affect data storage, access and retention.

Big data is here, and IT executives have to do something with it.
Chris Steffendirector of IT for Magpul Industries Corp.

Traditional database administrator skills are a good foundation for data experts. Certifications like Oracle DBA training and Microsoft Certified Database Administrator are a good place to start. But "data expert" connotes a strong knowledge of big data analysis and reporting tools, such as Hadoop, Amazon Redshift service, Amazon Relational Database Service, SAP and others.

Master data analysis tools with training provided by the vendor for extra practice. For holistic data expertise, also study sales, distribution and other business factors that influence data volumes and quality.

4. Mobile device management skills

Knowledge workers increasingly rely on their own laptops, smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices to access applications and data on the business network. IT professionals face the perennial challenge of accommodating bring your own device while preventing data leakage and protecting corporate security.

mobile device management is a broad category of tools and skills to provide administrative control over employee-owned devices. MDM distributes and installs applications, transfers data and administers configurations. MDM is typically implemented with third-party tools designed to manage a scope of mobile products. They are usually based on established platforms like the Open Mobile Alliance device management protocol, OMA client provisioning, SMS-based smart messaging, or device-specific platforms like Nokia's Asha over the air.

But MDM isn't just about using specific software. Successful MDM requires people skills and carefully considered acceptable-use policies -- MDM experts must create a reliable balance of accessibility, security, convenience and compliance.

While not a core data center skill, MDM knowledge will help you advance in the IT department or deepen your understanding of how users interact with the data center and related systems.

5. OpenStack skills

Running workloads in the cloud on standardized computing hardware is an ongoing challenge for cloud providers and developers.

OpenStack attempts to create a standard cloud computing platform that pools and provisions a data center's processing, storage and network resources through a Web interface. OpenStack is a group of components, including compute, object and block storage, network, management and other modules.

"New training that I think will help build skills is Open Stack training," Noble said. "Understanding how to create and manage resilient application design enabling on-demand access to compute resources will be increasingly important in the next five or 10 years."

Mastery of each module is a pathway to enhancing cloud implementations.

The OpenStack Foundation lists a range of training guides and online and live-led courses from Foundation members and third-party providers. There is no vendor-agnostic training or certification. For example, Red Hat offers Red Hat Certified System Administrator certification in Red Hat OpenStack.

Understand the IT shop's current or planned OpenStack deployment and select training that closely matches the vendor's implementation -- basic concepts carry over, but OpenStack nuances are vendor-specific.

Stephen J. Bigelow is a senior technology editor at TechTarget, covering data center and virtualization technologies. He acquired many CompTIA certifications in his more than two decades writing about the IT industry.

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