5 indispensable IT skills of the future

In the year 2020, technical expertise will no longer be the sole province of the IT department. Employees throughout the organization will understand how to use technology to do their jobs.

Yet futurists and IT experts say that the most sought-after IT-related skills will be those that involve the ability to mine overwhelming amounts of data, protect systems from security threats, manage the risks of growing complexity in new systems, and communicate how technology can increase productivity.

1. Analyzing Data

By 2020, the amount of data generated each year will reach 35 zettabytes, or about 35 million petabytes, according to market researcher IDC. That's enough data to fill a stack of DVDs reaching from the Earth to the moon and back, according to John Gantz, chief research officer at IDC.

Demand will be high for IT workers with the ability to not only analyze dizzying amounts of data, but also work with business units to define what data is needed and where to get it.

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These hybrid business-technology employees will have IT expertise and an understanding of business processes and operations. "They are people who understand what information people need" and how that information translates into profitability, says David Foote, president and CEO of IT workforce research firm Foote Partners LLC. "You'll have many more people understanding the whole data 'supply chain,' from information to money," he says.

2. Understanding Risk

Risk management skills will remain in high demand through 2020, says futurist David Pearce Snyder, especially at a time when business wrestles with growing IT complexity. Think of IT problems on the scale of BP's efforts to stop the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or Toyota's work to correct sudden acceleration in some of its cars, Snyder says.

"When you're in the time of rapid innovation," which is happening now and will continue into 2020, he contends, "you run into the law of unintended consequences -- when you try something brand-new in a complex world, you can be certain that it's going to produce unexpected consequences." Businesses will seek out IT workers with risk management skills to predict and react to these challenges.

3. Mastering Robotics

Robots will have taken over more jobs by 2020, according to Joseph Coates, a consulting futurist in Washington. IT workers specializing in robotics will see job opportunities in all markets, he adds.

"You can think of [robots] as humanlike devices, but you have to widen that to talk about anything that is automated," Coates says. Robotics jobs will involve research, maintenance and repair. Specialists will explore uses for the technology in vertical markets. For example, some roboticists might specialize in health care, developing equipment for use in rehabilitation facilities, while others might create devices for the handicapped or learning tools for children.

4. Securing Information

Since we're spending more and more time online, verifying users' identities and protecting privacy will be big challenges by 2020, because fewer interactions will be face-to-face, more personal information may be available online, and new technologies could make it easier to impersonate people, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Teleworkers will also represent a larger portion of the workforce, opening up a slew of corporate security risks.

"We're in a dangerous place," because many employees are tech-savvy, yet they "don't understand the first thing about data security," Foote explains. "That will change in 2020," when companies will cast an even wider net over data security -- including the data center, Internet connectivity and remote access, he predicts.

5. Running the Network

Network systems and data communications management will remain a top priority in 2020, but as companies steer away from adding to the payroll, they will turn to consultants to tell them how to be more productive and efficient, says Snyder, who follows predictions from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"You have already cut as many people as you can, so now you can only increase productivity," he says. "Someone has to come in here and tell me how to better use the technology that I have."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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