Business Skills Tip Hiring Scale

Outweigh tech savvy for new hires

Rupak Shah's computer science degree from the prestigious University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, coupled with his strong technical skills, might help him land a job interview with a corporate IT organization.

But the 22-year-old Chicago native's business savvy and entrepreneurial know-how—he built and operates a Web site that sells imported herbal supplements—are what would likely set him apart from the pack and bode well for his career.

That's the conclusion of a report released last week by the Society for Information Management, a Chicago-based organization for IT executives. SIM's survey, based on interviews last year with 96 IT managers at companies of all sizes, found that business skills account for half of the top 10 attributes IT managers say they will need from in-house staffers over the next three years. The other five preferred skills include a mix of project management and technical talents, though the latter, because they are client-facing, also require some business skills.

"This is a long-standing issue," said Kate Kaiser, an associate professor of IT at Marquette University in Milwaukee and the report's primary author. "But it's now more important than ever to have business skills. Companies are more aware than ever [about] what IT can do for them."

In contrast to the hiring freezes that graduates faced after the dot-com crash, the overall IT workforce is expected to remain stable until at least 2008, the report found.

As some jobs—especially technical ones in larger organizations—continue to be outsourced, IT positions emphasizing business and management skills, such as business process re-engineering or project planning, are likely to be retained or created, according to the report.

That demand offers opportunities to young IT workers with the right skills and mind-set, said Kaiser. She pointed to two former students who were promoted from programming to project management jobs in just two years rather than the five or more years such a climb typically requires.

"The time period one spends as a programmer is becoming compressed," Kaiser said.

"The average age of CIOs I meet today is five years younger than it was a decade ago," said Stephen Pickett, president of SIM and CIO at trucking company Penske Corp. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Still, many young IT job seekers haven't gotten the message.

Many are less like Shah and more like Thomas Tanaka, a recent computer engineering graduate, also from the University of Illinois. Apart from some general economics classes, the 26-year-old avoided taking business and management courses. "My technical courses already took up most of my time," Tanaka said.

Although the Santa Clara, Calif., resident has mostly looked for entry-level software jobs with IT vendors, he recently interviewed with a financial firm for an in-house IT position. His lack of a business background was quickly exposed. "They didn't ask me many technical questions during the interview," Tanaka said.

Mixed Messages

IT managers are part of the problem, because they often send mixed messages to job seekers. CIOs told Kaiser that although they continue to hire entry-level workers mostly for their technical skills, what they really deem most important for in-house IT workers are business and management skills—especially the ability to communicate well.

"I'm always shoving down my students' throat the importance of writing well, doing presentations and listening," she said. "They just think I'm being weird."

Even in the more technically specialized area of mainframe computing, business skills are essential, said Jim Michael, secretary of Share, a Chicago-based IBM mainframe users group. Overshadowed by more glamorous Web-related jobs, mainframes are enjoying a stealthy resurgence and are a promising area for recent graduates. "I don't think the next generation of zSeries professionals should go and get a business degree," Michael said. "But if you want to make a difference, you'd better be able to talk about how IT can drive business value."

Kaiser suggests that students take a healthy sampling of management and business courses while obtaining a management degree in information science or IT.

Pickett believes that universities are starting to adjust requirements for their computer science or computer engineering majors. "When I graduated with my computer science degree, I had to go back for my MBA several years later to catch up," he said. "I think universities are moving quickly to create graduates with more blended skills."


Survey Results

A Society for Information Management survey of 96 IT executives between last May and October found:

The total IT workforce — including in-house staffers, contractors and full-time equivalents — will remain stable from 2005 to 2008.

Organizations, especially larger ones, will increase their use of outsourcing.

Large organizations will increase their use of domestic outsourcing firms with workers located offshore.

At large companies, programming skills are most likely to be outsourced.

Fortune 500 organizations are hiring midlevel employees such as analysts, senior systems analysts and project managers.

Baby boomer retirements aren’t likely to be a factor until 2011.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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