Is your IT staff ready for IoT?

Organizations are itching to start internet of things initiatives, but efforts are hampered by shortages of already-scarce security pros and workers with newer analytics skills.

gears representing technology skills are shown filling the mind of an IT professional
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The city of Kansas City, Mo., blazed a new technology trail in May when it launched its first streetcar line with public Wi-Fi that spreads across two square miles, covering more than 50 square blocks. It also marked the debut of the city's first-generation smart city corridor for new technologies, many of which will run wirelessly over one of the largest free public Wi-Fi zones in the country.

For chief innovation officer Bob Bennett, finding the right tech talent to get the project moving was relatively easy, thanks to partnerships with networking giant Cisco, wireless carrier Sprint and a dozen other providers.

However, as the city moves forward with its plan to collect data from thousands of sensors and use predictive analytics to measure the effectiveness of city services, the 30 people in the IT department will have to learn new skills associated with the internet of things (IoT).

The challenge for some IT staffers "is the willingness to embrace what's next," Bennett says. For starters, he's lobbying for a move to cloud-based software with the city's next Oracle upgrade, and he hopes IT staffers will embrace cloud storage.

kc cio bob bennett

Kansas City, Mo., CIO Bob Bennett

He's also looking for IT professionals with "a freakish allegiance" to data protection standards and cybersecurity, and for people who can develop connections between multiple systems and create access to data.

Furthering Kansas City's smart city initiative will also require IT staffers with expertise in analytics, project management and communications. "The IT team is a critical part of this," Bennett says. "Those are the type of folks I'm looking for." He's not alone.

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IoT platforms are expected to save organizations money, improve decision-making via access to new data sources, increase staff productivity, provide better visibility into the organization and improve the customer experience. The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that the IoT ecosystem will have a total economic impact of up to $11 trillion by 2025.

IoT devices can be used in nearly every industry to capture valuable data. For example, healthcare providers are looking at technologies to improve patient care, and retailers are looking to the IoT for opportunities to find new customers and improve the shopping experience.

According to IT trade association CompTIA, six in 10 U.S. companies have some type of IoT initiative under way — either formal or experimental — and a shortage of IoT skills ranks as the second most-cited issue holding companies back from IoT projects, behind upfront costs.

It's not just people with skills in newer disciplines like big data and analytics who are in short supply; already-scarce security pros are needed, too. (Read about the cybersecurity attack that targeted unprotected IoT devices, including internet-ready cameras.)

Seth Robinson, senior director technology analysis, Comptia CompTIA

Seth Robinson, Comptia

The IoT is a complex ecosystem, and tech workers will have to have some knowledge of every aspect of that ecosystem, says Seth Robinson, senior director of technology analysis at CompTIA.

"It's not just about building a competent technical system that can perform a task for daily operation," he says. "It's about using this technology to drive forward into new areas. There has to be this knowledge of what the business is trying to do."

What will IT professionals look like in an IoT world? Industry analysts and IT leaders who are already in the IoT trenches share their blueprints.

Hot IoT skills

Tech workers in the IoT world will expand their primary domains of infrastructure, development, security and data to include IoT-related skills, but they will also need project management skills and business acumen, Robinson says.

There are hundreds of skills related to the IoT. The companies that actually produce the devices, or "things," that make up the IoT's interconnected web of systems will need people with manufacturing skills.

The organizations that use those devices to harvest data will need people with expertise in the hardware and software necessary to connect the various components, as well as big data and analytics experts who can extract value from the data.

• Security. Already the most sought-after IT professionals, cybersecurity specialists will be in even greater demand as the influx of IP-enabled devices increases vulnerabilities. The DDoS attack launched last week against Dyn will only add fuel to the demand.

"Security salaries are up 17% in the last 12 months" due to demand, says David Foote, co-founder and chief analyst at Foote Partners, an IT workforce research firm. Security pros skilled in vulnerability assessment, public key infrastructure (PKI) security, ethical hacking, intrusion analysis, enterprise defenses, forensics and wireless network security will be in greatest demand, he adds.

• Hardware and networking. Just about any device can be equipped with a sensor that can gather, store and transmit data. Robust networks will be required to move all of that data. IT professionals who already specialize in infrastructure will need an understanding of the types of networks that have to be in place to connect IoT devices, Robinson says.

Expertise in software-defined networking (SDN) technologies will also be in demand with the rise of the IoT. "A lot of companies haven't explored SDN at this point," Robinson says. "They haven't really had that need to virtualize the network and get that fine-tuned control over the traffic that's going through the network. But with the amount of traffic that will be crossing the network [thanks to the IoT] that will become a bigger issue."

• Software and connectivity. Software is required to make the data usable, and connectivity is needed to share that data with the entire system.

"Some people are very good at a system," Bennett says. "In an IoT environment, those who are the most successful have figured out how to link multiple systems, how to link the data from them to accomplish a second or follow-on goal, and they understand how System A communicates with System B."

• Big data. The major force likely to drive IoT deployments is big data. "Even if your company doesn't seem like it would make use of big data, chances are if you'll be using any IoT device, you'll need to have at least some functional knowledge of [it]," says Foote.

Foote Partners lists Apache Hadoop, NoSQL and NewSQL and Apache Spark among the most sought-after skills.

At GE Aviation, an IoT-oriented digital transformation has led to the creation of new positions — including chief data officer and "brilliant factory leader." Likewise, the company's software development initiatives require people with a broad knowledge of big data because the big data technology life cycle is just 18 to 24 months, says CIO Jude Schramm.

"We're looking for people who are adaptive in broad areas of technology — Hadoop, Cassandra, Greenplum. We're investing in hiring or transforming existing employees to be very proficient with those skills and to be very adaptive," Schramm says, emphasizing that GE Aviation doesn't want people to become specialists. He says he's looking for "a specialist in big data and a generalist in all the technologies."

• Analytics. Another driver of IoT projects is a desire to make better decisions, and that requires analytics to present findings in a useful way.

Some 60% of companies surveyed by LNS Research said they don't have enough internal expertise to launch an IoT or analytics project. Matthew Littlefield, president and principal analyst at LNS, says the remaining 40% — those who say they do have the necessary skills — "don't really understand how big the challenge is."

Almost a quarter of the companies without analytics skills plan to use a consulting firm with analytics expertise, and one-third of the respondents said they don't know how they'll tackle the problem.

The analytics community also faces a "data science divide" when it comes to IoT, Littlefield says. With traditional analytics, analysts can come up with predictive, diagnostic or prescriptive answers by using models, simulations and statistical programming. "In an IoT world, you're just collecting data from lots of different sources and the relationships between these sources aren't known beforehand," he says.

"It's not something you can model effectively or simulate effectively, and you don't really understand the underlying physics of what you're trying to model. So training industry experts on how to do data science, I think, is one of the big skills gaps today. There's a whole new set of rules around data science, and the industry experts are really skeptical about it."

• Cloud computing. As data is generated and storage becomes an issue, cloud-based systems will become the infrastructure for IoT initiatives.

Companies will outgrow their data centers and will have to work with cloud service providers, Foote says. This will increase demand for people who understand cloud computing and know how to manage data efficiently and make it available for analysis.

• Project management. Companies aren't moving away from using central IT groups as they embrace IoT technologies, but IT's relationships and connections with other groups in the organization are changing, Robinson says. One area in which this trend is evident is in project management, he says, because projects "are becoming more complex and these groups are becoming more distinct."

• Business acumen. With the rise of the IoT, tech workers will need business acumen because "the technology is being applied more at a business level," Robinson says. "Companies are realizing they can plug technology into those things."

Bennett says IT workers will need "the ability to go into a department and find out rather quickly through conversations with senior leadership what data" they want to track. "Having an IT professional who can figure out what's really important in terms of performance measurement allows us to be a data-driven organization," he adds.

A new class of worker

The collaborative nature of IoT systems will require tech workers to have knowledge of technologies outside of their own areas of expertise. Many companies have already started cross-training hardware and software developers — especially in the industrial sector, as part of the industry's IT-OT (operations technology) convergence, Littlefield says.

"They're training the IT folks to better understand PLC logic and control automation, and vice versa — they're taking control engineers and teaching them IT on the networking side and other IT skills," he says.

GE Aviation is cross-training its tech workers via a new team called the Digital League, made up of 35 employees from equal parts IT, operations management/supply chain and engineering. The colocated team meets daily to collaborate in creating the analytics that will manage inventory, improve machine uptime and automate the factory floor.

"IT professionals are learning very quickly what it's like to be on the factory floor because they have to see that to understand how some of this data moves and analytics get created," Schramm says.

"The operations folks and supply chain leaders are understanding how to code because they're creating analytics that are going to improve the way we run our shops. The engineering programs are doing both as well, and looking at how information moves from engineer and design down to factory floor" where automated designs are sent to machines cutting the parts.

The Digital League is now expanding to plants and sites in the field to continue the cross-training process, says HR manager Justin Howe.

Baked-in innovation

IoT leaders agree that tomorrow's tech teams will be bigger, smarter and faster. Companies and tech workers should prepare now. "Make sure your leaders are multiskilled pentathlete types who can do the coding but at the same time can understand why they're doing that coding in terms of the strategic reference and KPIs, so you're measuring the right things," Bennett says.

Foote recommends creating experiential learning centers. "Innovation-forward skills training needs to be melded into the daily work environment in a hands-on way" to be effective, he says.

And individual tech workers should "get educated on what these systems can do, and what the components of the IoT ecosystem are," Robinson says. "Get grounded in the basics and the way these systems work together and what they are doing to build a true IoT ecosystem."

"Get comfortable seeing and recognizing patterns," Foote says. "Pattern recognition represents a core part of an 'associative thinking' competency." He also recommends learning a coding language or an analytics platform.

"Try to specialize by industry," Littlefield says. "Each of those industries has its own consortiums or groups that are focused on IoT topics."

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