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Needed now and for the foreseeable future: Five hot IT skills

Demand for IT talent is at an all-time high, Niel Nickolaisen says, because every company today really is a technology company. Here are the hot IT skills he's on the lookout for.

I lived through the dot-com bubble and collapse. I mention this because in some ways the current technology startup and IT salary craziness seem eerily similar to that -- but with one critical difference.

Back in the dot-com days the hysteria over internet-based startups fueled the creation of companies whose only compelling business model was to do something -- anything -- online.  

The big difference between then and now is that organizations are using technology to do more meaningful and high-impact things than creating a shopping site. Today, every company utilizes technology to do things like automate its processes, gather and use improved data, put technology at the edges of where work takes place and lower capital costs. The result is that the competition for IT talent is fierce and it touches all of us.

As I consider where we are and where we need to be over the next two to five years, the hot IT skills we'll be competing for are as follows:

Hot IT skills: No. 1

A really good UX engineer is more rare than a really good UI designer. With that scarcity, we have decided to grow our own UX engineers via training, education and mentoring.

Software engineer: Even with our strong commitment to buy versus build when it comes to our enterprise systems, customer and competitive demands will likely require us to continue to write software. Perhaps not a bunch of software, but enough that we need some talented engineers. And there are just not enough of them around. To meet this need, the education and technology training industries are doing what they can (code camps, certifications on the pathway to a degree, access to online training programs, et cetera), but I expect demand to exceed supply for quite a while -- at least until someone builds robots that write quality code.

Now, what can most of us do to attract and retain good software engineers? I have found two things to be key. First, make sure the work is interesting. Second, let them use modern development tools, methods and frameworks (like repositories). Software engineers get cred when they can talk about things like continuous deployment and microservices architectures.

Hot IT skills: No. 2

Data scientist/Analyst: I am torn on this one. I admit that the massive amounts of data we all generate and gather needs to be analyzed, but I dislike the hype linked to data science. I have talked with freshly-minted college graduates who believe their skills are so rare that they require a salary close to that of my software engineering managers. But, the ability to verify, validate and model data using some of the arcane methods that complex data analysis requires is hard to find. I have decided to compromise on this one by finding data wonks who will grow with us. In our search for a data scientist who can grow with us, we also look at people from any discipline (not just IT), who have done some type of statistical analysis and modeling. Developing an internal education and training program in data science, something we are considering, would expand the talent pool.

Hot IT skills: No. 3

Cloud orchestration engineer: I will throw DevOps engineers into this bucket as well. There are lots of options for cloud services. The innovation in technologies like cloud containers is accelerating. At the same time, we still have lots of workloads on premises. In my mind, the ideal cloud orchestration engineer is someone who can take virtualization about three degrees beyond where it exists for most organizations. This notion of cloud orchestration engineer requires someone with a combination of technical and business sense; otherwise how do we know which workloads belong where or whether spot or contracted cloud services make the most sense  -- and if they make the most sense right now?

Hot IT skills: No. 4

Mobile application engineer: This is another one with a caveat. There are lots of people who can learn and do app development. The question is how many of those can do enterprise mobile app development -- apps that require rules, roles and permissions; apps that interact with back-end transactional systems; and apps that meet security and privacy requirements. I have found these enterprise mobile app skills more difficult to find.

Hot IT skills: No. 5

User experience engineer: Today, the quality of our technology is judged on the experience our users have while using that technology. No matter how efficient or effective the transactions, if the look and feel is archaic or if the navigation is not elegant and obvious, our technology will disappoint. I learned a long time ago that there is a difference between user interface (UI) design and user experience (UX) design. UI design is about colors and images. UX is about ease of use, ease of navigation and ease of access to needed information. And, a really good UX engineer is more rare than a really good UI designer. With that scarcity, we have decided to grow our own UX engineers via training, education and mentoring.

Well, there you have my take on the critical IT roles of today -- and possibly the future. That is, until the rapid pace of technology change renders my opinions invalid. Which could happen at any time.

About the author:
Niel Nickolaisen is a veteran IT leader, currently serving as the CTO at O.C. Tanner Co. He is a frequent writer and speaker on transforming IT and on IT leadership.

Next Steps

Recent columns from Niel Nickolaisen:

How cloud changed the CIO role

Humans will always sabotage security -- deal with it

AI has come a long way since 'Moneyball'

This was last published in June 2017

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The competition for IT talent is fierce. What's on your list of hot IT skills?
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I would put data analytics as number 1 - if not today - definitely for tomorrow!  
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