IT career paths you never dreamed of

Your cube is in finance or on the shop floor. Your title has been scrubbed of all geekiness.

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Similarly, $10 billion electric power and natural gas utility Xcel Energy in Minneapolis is experimenting with making some traditional IT roles and responsibilities somewhat unstructured so as not to inhibit innovation.

"We're using our business analytics group to start this," explains CIO Mike Carlson. "We're looking for people who are just insatiably curious about getting an answer to a problem. It's almost a hacker mentality. These are people who keep churning [data] and looking for relationships and data that supports hypotheses."

The company puts these workers in an undefined role and gives them a business issue to work on. For example, "maybe the CFO says there should be more money in the checkbook and asks why there isn't," Carlson says. "They then tear apart the data and build it back up to come up with an answer."

A college degree is not necessarily required to fill these roles, Carlson says. It's the curiosity that counts. Xcel has sought the help of an industrial psychologist to help identify potential employees with the curiosity and drive to trawl through data and uncover information that could be used to cut costs, improve efficiency and generate revenue.

The primary factor behind this strategy is an overwhelming volume of data. "We have tons and tons of data, and we have to turn it into a useful product," Carlson says. "Putting data in a business context is absolutely key."

Now in its third year, this IT hiring and organizational strategy has about a 60% success rate, Carlson says. It's not for everyone. "Some people have been terribly unhappy" in the less structured environment, he says.

According to Anthony Hill, CIO at Golden Gate University, which has outsourced virtually all of its technology operations, "IT is being driven out of the business of managing technology. Traditional IT has been about data centers, servers, software development, software implementation, and the maintenance and management of all of that," he notes. Not any longer.

"IT will focus more on analysis and be more involved in the early life-cycle tasks [of developing products and services] and less on technology delivery. IT will focus more on simulation, content and information architecture," Hill says. The bottom line: "Moving away from technology management doesn't take IT out of the picture. It changes what IT does."

Still room for geeks

To be sure, there are still plenty of traditional IT titles and jobs to be had across all industries. Virtually all of the CIOs, analysts, IT job experts and career advisers interviewed for this story acknowledge that IT is at the very beginning of this trend.

"What we're describing is still very aspirational," says Vinnie Mirchandani, founder of Deal Architect Inc. and a former technology industry analyst and outsourcing executive. "There is still a viable and clear career path for techies."

CIOs say that as long as ease of use remains high on the IT priority list, there will be room for the most technical of techies in IT. The reason: Simpler-to-use technology still involves a lot of complexity.

"IT is really moving in two directions at once," observes Lynn Vogel, CIO at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. "We're paying much more attention to the user experience, including graphic design and ease of navigation, but all of that makes it more complicated on the back end."

As a result, Vogel says, M.D. Anderson "will continue to invest in deeper and deeper technical skills. Technology is getting easier to use, but to make it easier to use, we have to be a lot smarter in IT."

At Direct Energy, Kalia says he still has "a bias toward IT guys who are classically trained, but have the mental agility to take on other tasks."

There will always be a need for technical work to be done, even if you opt to outsource the bulk of your IT operations, he observes. "If you don't have someone technical leading and managing that, you don't get a good following, because technical people don't respect nontechnical people," Kalia says.

"The other thing you don't have is a good B.S. detector," he adds. "So I always look for not just a slightly technical background, but a deep technical background. Even in junior people, I want a deep technical background, and then I expose them to other things in the company."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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