IT Survival Skills

For IT professionals, certifications in technical areas serve as standard career currency. But even the most gilt-edged diplomas may no longer guarantee advancement. To reach the upper levels of the IT organization, training time is better spent sharpening interpersonal and project management skills.

According to an IT skills research survey by IT Training Magazine, a U.K.-based publication, demand has shifted over the last five years, moving away from technical training and toward business analysis, systems design and project management skills. IT training shops have likewise shifted their offerings to match the demand for these skills.

“The days of code-writing savants that we kept in the back room are over,” says John Oberlin, associate vice chancellor and interim CEO at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We need well-rounded people with social skills and good judgment across a wide variety of situations.”

IT Management is Still Management

The College of Information Technology at Georgia Southern University near Savannah, Ga., has a thriving Professional Development Center, serving companies such as Verisign, newspaper publisher Morris Multimedia and Memorial Health, a large health service organization in the area. What most of these companies want for their IT professionals is project management training, says associate dean Hans Reichgelt.

“Memorial Health was keen on communication,” says Reichgelt. The Professional Development Center provided Verisign with PMI (Project Management Institute) Certification development units. Morris Multimedia wanted to improve its facility with Scrum, a flexible project management method designed for very small software development teams focusing on short-term goals. Overall, most of those being trained were already overseeing projects and were being groomed for greater management responsibilities.

Similarly, Tom Carpenter, a longtime IT trainer and consultant for LearnKey in St. George, Utah, has found that his course, “Communication Skills for IT Professionals,” struck a chord. The genesis of the course, Carpenter recalls, was the perception that information technology people are poor communicators. “I found out this was really true, and that the large majority of people working in IT had put close to 100 percent of their effort into developing their technical skills and almost no effort into developing their interpersonal skills.”

The course focuses on “learning to speak the business language and communicating the business value of IT,” says Carpenter, who still teaches on technical topics. Since the course was first offered in 2002, enrollment has more than doubled.

Training for Real Life

More and more organizations stress both written and verbal communication skills among their IT staff. University of North Carolina’s Oberlin, for example, requires his 450 IT employees to be able to write short summary memorandums.

Training in project management, running business meetings and dispute resolution is also vital. Anthony Orr, the global best practices director for BMC Software in Houston, Texas, prepares employees for an even tougher test: communicating in the midst of chaos. Orr oversees a unique airport simulation workshop designed to give students a better understanding of ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), a best practices framework for IT. In the simulation, students set up a service desk, add technical specialists and suppliers and manage the dynamics of the environment, all while increasing the complexity of the IT infrastructure.

“They experience what chaotic behavior is like within an organization where the processes aren’t aligned correctly, the technology doesn’t underpin the processes and there’s no communication,” says Orr.

That’s when the learning begins. “People come to the simulation and think, ‘Wow, this is what I do when I come to work.’ The value to the businesses is that the greater the level of complexity, the more you’re able to be more efficient, more effective and more economical.”

Orr notes that the program has been widely adopted across Europe and the Pacific Rim and is becoming increasingly important in the United States. “ITIL is all about service improvement,” he says. “ITIL tries to connect business and IT overall.”

Five Courses to Learn By

According to these experts, IT employees who want to progress in their career should take courses in the following five areas:

  • Project management
  • Group leadership
  • Individual time and task management
  • Communication, which includes communication across the company, with co-workers and with customers
  • ITIL, or connecting business and IT

As software development becomes more streamlined and end users become more technically savvy, so-called “soft skills,” especially project management and communication, will continue to become increasingly important for IT professionals and their employers. IT organizations must emphasize ongoing training in these areas in order to survive, thrive and add value to their┬ábusinesses.