Tech career survival guide

Here are the key IT, process and business skills you need to succeed today.

Anyone who has worked in IT for more than five minutes knows that the field has been in a dramatic transformation for the past 10 years, invading and conquering other organizational domains such as communications and security, while also wrestling with the new issues that technology has wrought such as employee mobility. In most organizations, IT has had to transform itself from a bunch of techies installing and troubleshooting equipment to a key enabler of business strategy and competitiveness.

Throughout, outsourcing and offshoring have shaken the foundations of IT, making some wonder at times if they have a role in their organization at all. And those who work in outsourcing companies also have to figure out what their role is when they are supporting a variety of clients.

What do all these changes mean for the typical IT employee today? What skills should an IT staffer be nurturing to enhance his career in a changing market? From InfoWorld's research, it's clear that IT employees need to bolster their skills and certifications in three key categories: technology, process and business skills.

Essential IT skills

Despite all the changes that the profession has gone through as it has become intertwined with the business, IT at its core is still about technology. Today, several technologies stand out as enticing career opportunities because of their complexity and the shortage of IT expertise around them. Four stand out in particular: virtualization, unified communications, wireless and modern application development.

Virtualization. In the rush to consolidate operations and reduce IT capital costs, virtualization has taken off, particularly server virtualization.

But the introduction of virtualization to reduce hardware and energy use has brought in a new challenge: how to manage the virtual environment. "Virtual machines are so easy to develop and so difficult to manage," says Mike Walsh, a product manager at Global Knowledge Training LLC, an IT and business training organization. "If you're creating virtual machines that can be moved all around physical servers, updated or not, documented or not, protected or not, how in the world do you manage it all? You can have a single physical server running dozens of different operating systems, including a legacy application on an old version of NT. It's very challenging."

As demand for virtualization skills increases, training and certification programs from both independent trainers and virtualization vendors are starting to appear for virtualization management. Although such training is useful, the best way to enhance your virtualization career, experts say, is to get real-world training on the job, especially through a large virtualization project.

Unified communications. Another emerging hot technology is unified communications, which involves the merging of voice and data networks through technologies such as voice over IP (VoIP). A Cisco Systems Inc.-sponsored report found that 57% of companies expected to require additional IP telephony skills in the near future. A recent report from Forrester Research Inc. cites unified communications as one of the top growth areas in IT organizations, requiring expertise with networking, user devices and collaboration applications. "We always thought of networking, server, administration and application administration as different disciplines. But with categories like unified communications, they're all merging," says Kimberly Lanzo-Russo, a director of Microsoft Corp.-related training at Global Knowledge.

Security in VoIP is huge," Walsh says. "Today, if you want to talk about something involving sensitive information, you typically don't send an e-mail; you pick up the phone so that there's nothing left on the screen, no record, nothing intercepted. Unfortunately, however, it's not all that difficult to put a tap on VoIP calls so that you capture any call in which, for example, the word 'merger' is said."

To a large extent, VoIP security expertise is about knowing how to set up the right controls, policies, procedures and enforcement mechanisms. The SANS Institute and InfoSec Institute are among those that offer courses on VoIP security.

Hard core networking skills are also crucial when it comes to VoIP and unified communications deployment. "You not only need to know about IP protocols and all that technical networking knowledge, you also need to understand how to layer all these other services on it without breaking anything," says Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, general manager for Cisco's training group.

Wireless. Wireless networking and related security issues are also hot. The Cisco-sponsored research report found that 59% of surveyed organizations were planning to recruit additional wireless skills.

"We see a huge shortage of real wireless expertise," Beliveau-Dunn says. "Wireless is now a standard part of any network, but you have to understand things about [the radiofrequency spectrum], time, distance and physical space that go beyond typical network expertise. There are so many different wireless security protocols to understand and you have to integrate them with your other security."

Demand has exploded as wireless has increasingly become a mainstream technology. "We see lots of customers who are building new buildings getting a wireless network up fast instead of rewiring the whole building, and we see a lot of the public sector investing in wireless mesh," Beliveau-Dunn says.

Also in demand are IT staff skills in carrier-based wireless and cellular technologies, says Global Knowledge's Walsh.

Modern application development. For internal and Web application development, Java skills remain in high demand. "An increasing number of end-user enterprise apps are written in Java," says Cushing Anderson, an IDC analyst. But Java skills alone won't cut it, he says: "You still need the structured back end. You need to be able to write in Oracle or SAP's development app."

But Java isn't the only hot app dev skill needed. In the last few years, there's been a surge in employers that assess candidates on their C# and ASP.Net skills. "From what we see, .Net is definitely hitting its stride," says Randy Kraemer, product manager for content strategy at Brainbench, a firm that does IT employee screening. "In the past, Unix, Linux and Java had much higher rankings."

Kraemer also sees a big interest in anything related to Web 2.0. AJAX is an obvious hot spot, and Kraemer sees increasing importance of Ruby. These Web 2.0 technologies are in demand because "every site wants to have some sort of social interaction," he says.

Aside from the typical Microsoft and other vendor application development certifications, IT developers should consider entering programming competitions such as those sponsored by TopCoder Inc. "People who come off TopCoder with top positioning are likely to get offers of various kinds," says Diane Morello, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

Multiple skills. Having an in-demand skill is certainly good for your career, but it's not enough for the long term. Companies are increasingly looking for cross-functional expertise. "The ability to make systems work together has become more important than ever before," says IDC's Anderson. "You can be a Cisco guy, but you'll be more valuable if you can optimize Cisco routing tables with your company's SAP financial applications. It shows you recognize how your piece fits in the broader circle of the organization." That might mean a combination of higher-level Cisco certifications with those of an SAP administrator. Unified communications and wireless obviously cross disciplines as well.

Crossing disciplines requires a firm expertise in the basics. "If you're a networking person who really understands connectivity, routing, and how networks really work, you'll be much more useful for a cross-disciplinary project than someone who knows just how to configure a specific router," says Global Knowledge's Walsh.

"We find that people are more likely than before to get several different certifications and that customers look at new technologies in an integrated fashion. You can't just know one area and not another," concurs Cisco's Beliveau-Dunn. That's why Cisco has started to embed security, wireless and quality of service for voice in its CCNA, CCNP and CCIE certifications in addition to offering specialty certifications for security, wireless and voice. "Unlike five years ago, today, you have to start with all this on Day One," she says.

Essential process skills

New technology skills are important, but having just technology skills will get you only so far. As IT gets more involved with massive projects such as corporate telephony systems, and with integrating new technologies that affect directly how business processes operate, project management and process skills are increasingly taking center stage.

"In IT today, just about everything is project work," says Kirsten Lora, a business training director at Global Knowledge. "The exceptions are mundane, operational jobs such as backup."

Concurs her colleague Walsh: "It's like a military campaign and requires tremendous project management skills."

Trainers recommend five key process-oriented certifications that career-minded IT staffers should consider acquiring: PMP or CAPM, ITIL, CBAP, ISO 20000 and Cobit.

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