Revitalizing Staff Skills

Forget the old IT career ladder. One way to advance is to zigzag between IT and business.

As the role IT plays in producing business value changes, so too does the notion of traditional IT skills or a typical IT career ladder.

“The world is becoming a giant service system, composed of 6 billion people, millions of businesses and millions of technology products connected into service networks,” says Gina Poole, vice president of innovation and university relations at IBM. As a result, traditional technical expertise is no longer enough.

“In today’s world, we need our technology people to be the business — to live and breathe it,” according to Frank Laura, CIO at Quicken Loans Inc. in Livonia, Mich. “Because the business and the technology change almost daily, our team members must immerse themselves in the business and the technology.”

Quicken Loans IT staffers Todd Lunsford, Sandy Pasharikovski, CIO Frank Laura, Radek Papiez, Joy Fair and Bill Parker.  Source: Michelle Andonian.

Quicken Loans IT staffers Todd Lunsford, Sandy Pasharikovski, CIO Frank Laura, Radek Papiez, Joy Fair and Bill Parker.

Source: Michelle Andonian.

That isn’t to say that strong technical skills are no longer important. But they are increasingly viewed as a commodity that can often be obtained by hiring a consultant or by outsourcing nonessential services. What really matters, then, is knowing how to apply technology to improve business performance.

“You can go on the street and find a good Java programmer or those types of skills,” says William Ulrich, president of Tactical Strategy Group Inc. in Soquel, Calif. “It is much more difficult to go outside the company and find someone who understands the in-depth nature of your business.”

Computer Contortionists

According to IT executives, the new business-focused IT structure requires skills in multiple disciplines.

“We are becoming versatilists rather than technologists,” says John Stiffler, director of IT governance and strategy at accounting firm Grant Thornton LLP in Chicago. Rather than just being skilled in a particular type of technology, he says, IT workers need to be “adept at understanding business issues and applying their technical experience and understanding to develop solutions.”

This changes the traditional IT career ladder. “In IT, that ladder blew up years ago,” says David Foote, president of Foote Partners LLC, an IT career research firm in New Canaan, Conn.

Now, there are two ways to get to the top of an IT department. “A lot of people in IT don’t want to move into management but are still very valuable to the company,” says Foote. “When you have a very talented senior technical person who doesn’t want to become a manager, you can move them into something like a distinguished engineer position.”

The second path allows IT workers to switch between IT and business functions. “There are career tracks that zigzag back and forth between IT and business,” he says. “Someone might start as a business analyst, then move into a project management job, then an IT management path, then go back to an innovation path ... then to process management, then move up a rung to process leadership or process ownership, and then go back over to management as manager of an IT line of business.” Similarly, systems architects can zigzag between designing processes and designing the infrastructure that supports them.


The bottom line is that titles are becoming less important. What counts is the particular technical and business skills someone can bring to bear.

“Companies are not looking at IT people as people with titles,” says Foote. “They are looking at the role they play.”

So, for example, while a company might have looked for an Oracle database administrator in the past, now it is looking for someone who can make its medical database HIPAA-compliant or can give customers access to inventory availability. As such, an IT worker’s role can continually change, with or without any formal change in job title.

“We frequently assemble ‘virtual’ or informal team structures that don’t necessarily report to a single leader but work together on projects to support various business functions,” says Laura.

And as IT workers move through these new teams, their individual roles alter. “For one particular need, you may be the senior team leader for a large group of people; for another time, you may be almost an independent consultant facilitating process-redesign sessions,” says University of Pennsylvania CIO Robin Beck. This leads to a de-emphasis on formal titles and traditional career ladders. “We don’t have a traditional skills ladder or titles like ‘Analyst III,’” she says. “We pay for responsibility, we pay for skills, we work hard to give excellent service, and when you do good work, you get more money.”

This focus on business alignment does shift the types of careers available, however, whether or not they are given formal titles. “There are more career options now,” says Ulrich. “You can move into an architectural position — data or technology — but you can also move into a role of a business analyst or business architect if you have built up enough business skills.”

The New, Reskilled IT Worker

The shift away from strictly IT positions doesn’t mean there’s less need for technology-skilled staffers. In fact, that need is growing.

“As technology is becoming embedded in all aspects of business, society and our personal lives, the need for skilled IT professionals is greater than ever,” says IBM’s Poole. “There is an increasing requirement to apply technology, engineering and disciplined thinking to all aspects of the business.”

But the very nature of IT work is evolving with the shift to a services economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 80% of the U.S. labor force will be in service industries by 2014. So, while there will still be a need for IT to provide computers for the hard subjects, such as computer-aided design and genome sequencing, more of the jobs will revolve around facilitating customer service. To this end, IBM’s Academic Initiative has been working with universities to develop a degree program called services sciences, management and engineering (SSME). The program encompasses computer science, business strategy, social sciences and other fields. SSME programs are now available at Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, North Carolina State, and the University of California, Berkeley, among others.

“IBM has been aware of these hybrid roles for a long time and has pioneered the idea of zigzagging,” says Foote. “If you look at this model, it makes a lot of sense.”

In addition to broad-based programs such as SSME, IT groups are also bringing in experts from other areas of the organization and giving them the technical training they need.

Beck reports that her latest hire came from a university business office. Stiffler says his CIO was an accountant for 25 years and therefore has an excellent grasp of his firm’s business operations.

The noncore skills can also be obtained on a temporary basis. “In addition to looking at the traditional coders, we have to realize that we need graphic artists for Web design or economists to help us build models for forecasting,” says John Rome, director of data administration and data warehousing at Arizona State University. “In the last year, we brought in various skill sets to help us in those areas.”

But how does one go about gaining those skills? There is no single approach. Beck says that she spends a lot of money on retraining — some technical and some customer service. More than 80% of her staff had training last year.

Rome takes the budgetary approach. Since his staff is weak in project management, Rome says, he adds money to project budgets to include additional training in that area.

Others advise taking courses or seminars in finance, communications or business. And then there is the possibility of serving apprenticeships.

“Some businesses have rotated IT staffers to work in the field for six to nine months and then rotated them back into IT,” says Tactical Strategy Group’s Ulrich. “That gives them a much better feel for what is going on in the business.”

Interdisciplinary workgroups also play a role in building skills. “You can have almost a recognized program of building experts through these collaborative teams who are exposed to so many things on the tech and business sides,” Ulrich adds.

The bottom line is that training needs to be ongoing, with skill improvement being built into everything the IT department does.

“Retraining and reskilling are tremendously important for IT organizations, but it is a continuous thing you are doing,” Beck says. “It is not a radical change, but taking components of what is the IT skill set and continually adapting them to what our clients need.”

Also see Five Old-school Skills for the New-Age CIO.

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Business consultant Geoffrey Moore discusses his book, Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of Their Evolution, in this Storage Networking World webcast.

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Robb is a Computerworld contributing writer.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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