Career advice for IT pros

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In response to a column I wrote for SearchSoftwareQuality.com about the claimed IT labor shortage in the U.S., many longtime IT professionals emailed me and said they don't advise college students to enter the IT field (Readers speak out about U.S. IT labor shortage). They painted a bleak picture, saying companies are looking only for cheap labor in or from other countries, and if you do land a job with one of them there is no job security. So, what do you do if you're a 20-something IT pro? Is there anything you can do to secure your place in the IT industry? As one letter writer asked, "Is there any hope? If so, what should I do to make sure that I can stay prime through the 30+ years I still have in IT?"

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I am the Associate Director of Information Technology and Management degree programs offering both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the field. Our students are all gaining employment, and many of our students are newly employed even before they have completed our program; two of our Masters’ students came to see me before the beginning of this term to ensure that the few remaining courses in their curriculum could be completed online as they were both off to Redmond to work for Microsoft. The areas where they are being employed would seem to be an indicator of where the jobs are:

#1: Information security and forensics. There are far more forensic investigation jobs out there than there are bodies to fill them. One of our recent Masters’ grads is the forensic investigator for a financial fraud unit at a big five accounting firm, because the evidence is all on the hard drives these days. The industry is scrambling for capable security technicians and competent security managers, auditors and certifiers.

2: VoIP and wireless. It’s the future of phones and networking and it is happening now.

#3: Application developers who can do .NET or Java, but especially those who can do both. The best employers around the Chicago area for these folks are financial services firms and banks because those that are smart are not willing to send coding for sensitive financial apps offshore.

#4: IT generalists. Our undergraduates finish our program ready to supply all IT support services for a small to medium business; the tough part here is actually finding the jobs, because often these firms are hiring IT professionals for the very first time and in many cases they don’t really even know how to go about it. But when they get them, our undergrads fit the bill very well, as they can all do the following: Install, configure and maintain Windows, Solaris and essential networking components; create and administer a database; build a web site; program in Java and C++ with reasonable fluency in Java; employ project management methodology; and employ proper and reasonable security for a network and systems. On top of this they take 18 semester hours of elective in our program which gives them additional abilities in a broad range of potential subjects. There really is an ongoing need for these IT Generalists.

#5. Operating system virtualization. Again, industry is crying out for anyone who has this on their resume. In my virtualization class students all get hands-on experience with virtualization in a broad variety of environments and products.

My advice for the 20 somethings would be review and update your skills to ensure a good match with employer needs. A competent and capable IT professional with a proven track record should seriously examine moving into the Information Security realm. To answer the question “If so, what should I do to make sure that I can stay prime through the 30+ years I still have in IT?” I would say that continuous education is an absolute must. Subscribe to every available trade journal and at least scan the headlines every week for a sense of industry trends and concerns; take advantage of free vendor-sponsored seminars and educational opportunities; pay for a “real” course now and then, even if you have to do it out of pocket; and (no I am not associated with O’Reilly or Safari books) get a Safari books subscription and read the table of contents and at least the introductory chapter to the new books posted each month.

Most importantly, when you are employed, learn the business of your employer. If you get hired by, say, Walgreens (which has a very large IT establishment) start thinking of yourself as a drugstore professional and not an IT professional. Remember that 80% of people working in IT work for a non-IT business. Learn the core business: the more you know about the core business, the more effective an IT professional you will be. We tell our students that their motto for their working life should be “Business First, Technology Second.” Businesses want CIOs who are business professionals that can manage technology, so if you want to get to the top, you ultimately have to sell yourself in the business world, not the IT realm.

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