Ready for 2020? Advice for every career stage

Mon Aug 23, 2010 3:39pm EDT

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Information technology has always been a fast-changing field. But nothing compares to the expected sea changes in the next decade that will impact the career plans of every generation of IT worker.

"The rate of change has accelerated dramatically," says Alain Chesnais, president of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and founder of Visual Transitions, which specializes in computer graphics and social networks. Consider, he says, that graphics chips are doubling in capacity every six months. That translates into a thousandfold increase in capacity over a five-year period -- the average shelf life of most game platforms. "We've never seen anything like it in any industry," he says.

As the effects of these types of advances ripple across the corporate world and combine with the forces of the Web, mobile computing, consumerization and virtualization, "traditional IT organizations won't look [the way] they do now," says Thomas Druby, an IT executive and former CIO at a large insurer.

"Help desks, network and desktop support, LANs, telecom -- all those things are becoming a commodity that organizations will pay someone outside the company to do [so they can] focus their money and talent on niche areas that bring higher business value," Druby says. These niches, he adds, might require the services of business process specialists, people who can analyze and present business data, security experts and vendor relationship managers.

With that in mind, we've gathered some ideas on the actions that IT workers at three distinct stages of their careers need to take to prepare for the year 2020.

The Pipeliners

These are the college students who are getting degrees now and will fill payrolls in 2020.

Today's college students don't know life without a phone in their pocket and constant connectivity with family and friends. For this reason, they will in some ways be better prepared than previous generations for the pervasively mobile and services-oriented technology landscape of 2020.

At the same time, colleges can't adapt their curricula fast enough to prepare students for the complexities of cloud computing and virtualization, not to mention specific technologies such as Microsoft SharePoint, observers say. Recent graduates also seem naive when it comes to business basics and how computing foundations apply to the real world, says David Buzzell, CIO at The Sedona Group, a Moline, Ill.-based workforce management services provider.

"You bring a programmer or network administrator on board, and they don't have the big-picture view of how the business runs," he says. One recent hire, he notes, could program user interfaces but had no concept of a database. Another didn't know what an invoice was.

2020 IT Careers Outlook

By the Numbers

Cloud Comfort

Would you consider working for a cloud services provider?

* Yes: 60 %

* No: 13 %

* Don't know: 27 %

Ready for What's Next

What's at the top of your agenda right now, to prepare your career for the year 2020?

* 46% of the respondents said "seek out a different role at my current company that balances business and technology skills."

Source: Exclusive Computerworld survey of 465 IT professionals, July 2010

Druby agrees that colleges are in continual catch-up mode and have only recently added project management and soft skills training to computer science programs. "They're about five years behind where they need to be," he says. Students can fill that gap by pursuing internships, he suggests. "It can help them understand what the business is about, as well as the components of technology they wouldn't pick up at a university."

Tom Silver, a senior vice president at Dice.com, says more students are doing just that. And combining a technology degree with business knowledge will lead them to the higher-paying areas of IT.

Andrew Hrycaj is accomplishing this by working full-time as a network consultant while studying for an associate's degree, with the goal of earning a bachelor's. Hrycaj agrees that there's "an extreme gap" between the academic approach to IT and the real world, especially when it comes to cloud computing and virtualization. He believes the only way to learn how technology is really used is through experience. "It's the difference between being in it as opposed to talking about it from a thousand-foot view," he says.

Students can also seek out instructors who have spent time in industry. At Macomb Community College, for instance, Martin Kohl, professor of IT, not only teaches Java programming, but also has his students build an electronic health records system and then refer back to it throughout the semester. "We like to focus on, How can they apply this when they walk out the door? Can they use it?" he says.

To address the gap between college and real-world experience, the ACM has introduced new curriculum guidelines for undergraduate IT programs that address how computing is manifested in industries such as law, health, finance and government, Chesnais says. The guidelines are also influenced by trends such as the globalization of IT development processes, the ubiquitous use of Web technologies, and the emergence of Web services, software-as-a-service and cloud computing, he says.

Gretchen Koch, who heads CompTIA's "Getting America Back to Work" initiative, agrees that young professionals should think about IT as it's integrated into industry sectors. "They need to know about the industry they're participating in and the regulations those industries are bound by," she says. CompTIA is developing certifications for health IT and is working on programs for cloud security.

The Newcomers

These are the Gen Y'ers -- people in their 20s and early 30s who are in the early stages of their careers now and will dominate the ranks in 2020.

With its famously informal approach toward work, enthusiasm for social networks and ability to take digital multitasking to new heights, this group has already forced some changes in corporate culture and even in the technologies that IT supports.

Where the Gen Y'ers could stumble, Silver says, is in their upward progression toward roles that require relationship-building skills. Although they have a natural propensity to communicate digitally, they also need to understand the importance of face time. "Texting and e-mail are no substitute for a relationship," Silver says. This group could learn a lot from the older people at work, he contends, and forming cross-generational relationships would help them gain perspective on fitting into the higher levels of the organization.

Some in this age group may need prodding to consider taking on bigger roles. "I haven't seen many with the drive or desire to get to that level," says Buzzell.

Buzzell would also like to see Gen Y'ers adopt a more sophisticated perspective on the ramifications of technology decisions, particularly when it comes to security. "Younger people are so adept at working in a mobile environment and feeling free with what information they disclose that they'll have a harder time understanding security issues," he says.

On the positive side, Buzzell adds, Gen Y'ers are fearless in the face of technology change. At Sedona, he says, there was a lot of pushback from the 35-to-50-year-old staffers recently when IT introduced a new Web-based application. But the younger set was more likely to ask why they needed training at all.

It's that versatility, penchant for innovation and hunger for new challenges that James Sims loves about Gen Y workers. While they require a different management style -- one that measures results, not hours logged in the workplace -- "they're stimulated by variety and challenge, and they're much more capable than other age groups of working as a team and collaborating," says Sims, who is CIO at SaveMart Supermarkets.

Even their multitasking is a strength, he says, as is their ability to communicate on multiple channels, including IM, Skype, texting and smartphones.

The Midcareers

These are the Gen X'ers and boomers who are setting the tone now and will be hitting the midpoint of their careers or winding down in 2020.

IT professionals at or near the midpoint of their careers face the biggest challenge in the next decade, observers say. Those closest to retirement age in 10 years may have the easiest time, since the transition to the new IT won't happen overnight, Druby says.

But people who are currently in their late 30s and 40s, he says, will need to retool quickly. "Of all the age ranges, this is the most vulnerable," he says. "Whatever you've been doing in your professional life, the new technologies are going to be vastly different." A willingness to embrace change will be essential, and employers will need to see enough value to invest in retooling these workers.

Sims agrees that the younger segment of this group -- the Gen X'ers -- will be particularly challenged, but for a different reason. Compared with Gen Y, he says, they are less adept at working in groups, more entitlement- than achievement-oriented, and less willing to accept advice or mentoring. While both populations chafe under traditional work styles and reject formal rules, Gen X seems more inclined to complain about perceived constraints versus suggesting or inventing new ways of doing things, he says.

Sims says he anticipates that there might be some leapfrogging, with Gen Y workers managing Gen X'ers. "If you can't work well in a group, how are you going to lead groups and foster team behavior?" Sims asks.

Buzzell, who has been in IT for 20 years, says responding to the change mandate is essential, especially in an industry famous for its youth bias.

The key, he says, is to keep investing in yourself, through reading and training, in both IT and business areas. One rule of thumb suggests spending 3% of your salary and time in self-training, he says. Buzzell attends industry conferences and has been doing research in lean manufacturing, Six Sigma and business processes. "It's my future -- if I want to stay relevant, I'm responsible for that," he says.

Silver emphasizes the importance of diversifying your skill set, possibly through job rotation programs. "If you've been writing code for a while, maybe there's a project management rotation you can take, or you can work in different business units," he suggests. There will be a growing need for people with business intelligence skills, as well as leadership and communication capabilities, he adds.

Midcareer workers should also value their business experience -- something younger professionals simply don't have. "They know how to navigate the organization, and the ones just coming through don't. They want to be given a task and be left alone," Kohl says.

Chesnais agrees. "Younger people don't know what's impossible," he says. "Sure, they're more familiar with the newer tools, but I don't think that outweighs the experience of knowing how to get from one stage of a project to the next, for instance." Any deficits in your comfort level with new devices can be filled through a conscious effort to educate yourself.

Keeping up with change can be as simple as experimenting with the latest consumer devices. Druby carries an iPad, and Sims uses three different smartphones and recently ordered an Android-based tablet. Chesnais says that at a recent meeting, half the people in the room had iPads. "Any professional in this field should be putting [the iPad] through its paces to see what this changes in our workspace," he says.

"If you're not willing to build a new tool set, you'll be pushed to the side of the road," Kohl says. "But for people with the ability to change, the future is very promising."

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