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Highly valued soft skills for IT pros

Depending on which company you talk to, there are varying demands for IT technical skills. But there is one common need that most IT organizations have: soft skills. This need is nothing new. As early as three decades ago corporate IT sought out liberal arts graduates to become business and systems analysts so they could “bridge the communications gap” between programmers and end users. And if you look at the ranks of CIOs, almost half have backgrounds in liberal arts.

So what are the soft skills areas that companies want to see in IT professionals today?

1: Deal making and meeting skills

IT is a matchup of technology and people to produce products that run the company’s business. When people get involved, there are bound to be disagreements and a need to arrive at group consensus. IT’ers who can work with people, find a common ground so projects and goals can be agreed to, and swallow their own egos in the process if need be are in high demand.

2: Great communication skills

The ability to read, write, and speak clearly and effectively will never go out of style — especially in IT. IT project annals are filled with failed projects that were good ideas but poorly communicated.

3: A sixth sense about projects

There are formal project management programs that teach people PM methodology. But for most people, it takes several years of project management experience to develop an instinct for how a project is really going. Natural project managers have this sixth sense. In many cases, it is simply a talent that can’t be taught. But when an IT executive discovers a natural project manager who can “read” the project in the people and the tasks, this person is worth his/her weight in gold.

4: Ergonomic sensitivity

Because its expertise is technical, it is difficult for IT to understand the point of view of a nontechnical user or the conditions in the field that end users face. A business analyst who can empathize with end users, understand the business conditions they work in, and design graphical user interfaces that are easy to learn and use is an asset in application development.

5: Great team player

It’s easy for enclaves of IT professionals to remain isolated in their areas of expertise. Individuals who can transcend these technical silos and work for the good of the team or the project are valued for their ability to see the big picture. They are also viewed as candidates for promotions.

6: Political smarts

Not known as a particularly politically astute group, IT benefits when it hires individuals who can forge strong relationships with different constituencies throughout the company. This relationship building facilitates project cooperation and success.

7: Teaching, mentoring, and knowledge sharing

IT’ers able to teach new applications to users are invaluable in project rollouts. They are also an asset as teaching resources for internal IT. If they can work side by side with others and provide mentoring and support, they become even more valuable — because the “real” IT learning occurs on the job and in the trenches. Central to these processes is the willingness to share and the ability to listen and be patient with others as they learn.

8: Resolving “gray” issues

IT likes to work in binary (black and white). Unfortunately, many of the people issues that plague projects are “gray.” There is no right or wrong answer, but there is a need to find a place that everyone is comfortable with. Those who can identify and articulate the problem, bring it out in the open, and get it solved are instrumental in shortening project snags and timelines.

9: Vendor management

Few IT or MA programs teach vendor management — and even fewer IT’ers want to do this. But with outsourcing and vendor management on the rise, IT pros with administrative and management skills who can work with vendors and ensure that SLAs (service level agreements) and KPIs (key performance indicators) are met bring value to performance areas where IT is accountable. They also have great promotion potential.

10: Contract negotiation

The growth of cloud-based solutions has increased the need for contract negotiation skills and legal knowledge. Individuals who bring this skills package to IT are both recognized and rewarded, often with highly paid executive positions.

10 resolutions for better IT in 2016

What if CIOs challenged themselves and their IT staff members to come up with 10 resolutions for the New Year?

Here are some goals that might make the list.

1: Improve listening skills

Try as it might, IT is fundamentally an engineering discipline. IT’ers like to focus on things and on words that are spoken or written at face value. Sometimes, though, critical listening kicks in and benefits everyone when IT’ers can “hear between the lines,” whether it’s detecting someone’s frustration or catching the expression of a hidden wish that the system could do something better. Listening skills continue to be a developmental area for IT.

2: Don’t be arrogant

It’s easy to dismiss a non-IT person’s idea if it isn’t technically feasible, but sometimes there’s a useful gem buried in the suggestion. Even if there isn’t, patience and respect for others’ input can go a long way toward dispelling IT’s reputation for sometimes being arrogant and aloof.

3: Avoid using acronyms

Unless you’re surrounded by a group of techies who use acronyms day-in and day-out, it is a good idea to keep acronyms out of conversations. They get in the way of clear communications.

4: Kick the tires on new technologies

Despite the number of IT departments that say they are “leading edge,” more than 50% of IT work is spent on system maintenance. At the end of the day, there is very little budget or staff time left to explore new technologies that could be benefit the company in the future. Don’t let this stop you. There are plenty of vendors out there that would welcome giving you a test drive of what they’ve got to offer—and to show you how it could potentially pay off for your company—even if you’re not immediately planning to buy.

5: Develop a strategy for reducing system maintenance

Even though system maintenance consumes such a large amount of the average IT department’s time, few of them have an active strategy for it. Whether it’s outsourcing applications to the cloud, improving quality assurance so applications fail less, or assessing the breakage levels of applications and replacing high-breakage apps, IT departments need to get on top of this area so they can free more staff to work on new projects.

6: Implement green IT in asset management

IT has already attacked data center carbon footprints by reducing the numbers of physical servers and storage devices/cabinets, replacing them with virtual counterparts. But there’s still more to be done for green IT. A prime area is asset management, which uses software to track IT hardware and software assets both inside and outside the data center. If asset management software is implemented to track asset use—and then identifies assets that are barely or no longer being used—IT can redeploy these assets or get rid of them. Another asset management area is building facilities and office space, a major energy consumption and expense item for enterprises. Many companies have been successful at saving money and promoting corporate-wide green initiatives when they’ve used their IT asset management software to track facilities utilization.

7: Commit to staff training and development

The first area to go with budget cuts is IT staff training and development. But with the advent of so many new technologies and projects, IT can scarcely afford to endure learning curves on every mission-critical project. If necessary, the CIO should be talking to the board and the CEO about the importance of investing in key IT personnel by offering proactive technology education and career growth paths. This encourages the most valuable IT contributors to stay with the company for the long haul.


8: Employ end users in QA

Quality assurance is an oft-neglected area in IT. Its task is to check out applications for conformity to technical and functional requirements, but what is missing in the QA process is an app checkout that evaluates the application’s fit with the business process it’s being inserted into—as well as the user experience and user-friendliness of the application. The best people to do the user-oriented checkouts are the end users themselves. This also engages users actively in the process of testing a new application and helps ensure their buy-in to the app.

9: Update your DR plan

IT continues to place regularly testing and updating disaster recovery plans on the back burner, due to the many projects and user requests that constantly flood the IT workload. Nevertheless, those who have actually been through a disaster will attest that there is no document more singularly important than the DR plan when things go wrong. A poor disaster recovery effort can harm a company’s business reputation for the long term—and it can also affect the jobs and careers of those who were supposed to be in charge of assuring that the company could meet any disastrous circumstance it faced.

10: Revisit your data retention policies

The big data age has swamped enterprises with more data than ever before, but not all of it is useful. Although it can be among the most dreaded of tasks, make it a point to revisit corporate data retention policies with business units across the enterprise on an annual basis.

IT skills gap may thwart SA’s tech boom

Hopes that liberalisation of the telecoms sector will let SA use new technologies to catch up in the global economy could be thwarted by a severe skills crisis. Firms eager to use cost cutting technologies face another hurdle in finding people able to implement and manage them.  The skills shortage could damage government’s chance of achieving its growth targets, research house IDC has warned.

Last year, companies were unable to fill 70,500 networking jobs, according to IDC. That will grow to 113,900 by 2009 as more companies implement sophisticated networks.  The research, commissioned by Cisco Systems, has not revealed anything the industry did not already know, but it has quantified the scale of the problem.

Chief information officers reported 34,000 vacancies for people with general network technology skills last year, with IDC predicting a shortage of 44,200 by 2009. For advanced technology skills such as security, internet protocol telephony and wireless networking, there were 36,500 vacancies last year. That will grow to 69,700 in 2009, representing a 30% shortfall in supply versus demand. Advanced skills have become more important as networks are utterly crucial in supporting business processes.

All the respondents said in the past they had recruited purely locally. In the future, 14% expect to recruit internationally to find more advanced skills. Many hope to recruit South Africans who are coming home after gaining experience abroad.

“We needed to get an understanding of where the skills gap is,” said Cisco SA GM Clive Fynn.

Companies can still find general networking skills relatively easily, particularly if they are willing to hire employees with little work experience.

“If you need a specialist in wireless you can pick them out from under any tree, but advanced skills are very difficult to find,” he said.

Cisco is keen to share its findings with government, educational institutes and other IT firms to see what can be done to boost SA’s IT training capacity.

“We are saying there’s a serious problem here because if we are going to contribute to the technological advancement of this continent, the government needs to co-invest.

“Everybody in the networking market has to collaborate much more closely. We need a few changes and one is a change to the basic curriculums taught at schools,” Fynn said.

Cisco is working with the education ministry and the Western Cape government to try to influence school curriculums.

Numerous firms and organisations are clamouring to put forward their ideas of what should be taught in schools, but Cisco says it has piqued the education department’s attention.

“Government has been very clear that if we are to going to transform the working environment, one of the key fields we need to promote is science and technology.”

Cisco has also partnered with the Nelson Mandela University and the Cape Peninsular University of Technology to create training courses that offer what the market needs. But the pace at which educational institutes evolve means it will be next June before the new curriculums are even introduced, and far longer before the first graduates reach the market.

Those university courses will include internships with hi-tech companies to give the students work experience and make them marketable once they graduate.

Cisco runs its own two-year internship courses, but with only 10 people going through the system each year, its effect on the skills gap is almost negligible.

[Source: Business Day]