Hot IT Skills

One of the questions that I run into a lot these days is: What will be the next hot IT skill?

Java, XML, and Web-site development, the last crop of hot skills, are now just everyday commodities. Middleware and application-integration skills are certainly in demand, but I have trouble calling them “hot.”

When I look at existing and emerging technologies, I really don’t see much evidence of a new, hot, technical skill-set on the horizon. Reaching this opinion led me to realize that the next hot IT skill may have nothing at all to do with technology: The next hot skill for IT may be on the business side of the equation.

I was fueled in this thinking by data from my company’s latest industry survey, Strategic Trends in Information Technology. In this survey, as well as others dating back to the early 1980s, business-IT alignment is rated the most pressing issue facing IT today. Think about that: For 20 years, business-IT alignment has been the biggest issue for IT. How can that be?

It can’t be because IT professionals are stupid: Just look at the complex technologies we have mastered. It can’t be because IT professionals are lazy: Sleep-deprived IT pros working death-march projects are legion. It can’t be because IT is full of incompetents: Incompetents could not have built the information systems that our economy depends on.

No, I believe the reason business-IT alignment remains such a problem is simply because we haven’t applied ourselves to it. We’re always ready to apply ourselves to the next latest-greatest technology, but we haven’t been so anxious to attack business-IT alignment.

Part of the reason for this lies in the personality of the typical IT professional. We tend to be enthusiastic about technology (rightfully so), and we’re just glad that business needs information technology so we have a place to work. Most of us have a technology focus.

What’s needed to overcome business-IT alignment problems, however, is a business focus. All of us in IT should care enough about business to understand how the market works and the pressures that puts on our companies. For some of us, this will be as far as we can go before being distracted by the next latest-greatest technology. For others, though, this business focus will overshadow the technology focus. If there is an ideal IT professional, it is someone who is a master of technology with the soul of an entrepreneur.

I believe the key element of a business focus is to realize that for the business, technology is secondary. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated, how powerful, how cool, or how sexy a technology is — the technology is just a tool. What’s primary is business results, usually measured in dollars and cents.

Our goal is to expand our market share by 5% next year. If we install the new CRM system, will it help us do that? How much will it cost, and how does that compare to the value of its benefits? What’s the downside? Do we really need a new system, or should we spend the money to add more reps to our existing call center? What are the risks of installing CRM? Of not installing it? And so on. Business decisions properly involve weighing costs and benefits, risks and rewards. And they often involve trade-offs.

This last fact sticks in the craw of many IT professionals — systems based on trade-offs may not be optimal from an engineering perspective or they’re not elegant or they don’t use the latest technologies.

If we were concerned with nothing but technical excellence, these would be powerful concerns. But in business, technical excellence must always be balanced with resources and opportunities. If you can get 80% of the bang for 20% of the bucks, if by throwing a solution together you can beat your competition to market, if your company’s biggest customer insists that you maintain technical compatibility with his old technology, technical excellence must take a back seat to business effectiveness.

Now this kind of thinking won’t be comfortable for many IT professionals. But all of us should understand that this is the thinking behind many business decisions. And for those of us who resonate to this thinking and develop our ability to contribute to it, there is a whole new world waiting to be conquered — one where business-IT alignment is no longer the top issue facing IT.

What’s the next hot technical IT skill? Beats the hell out of me. But I’m convinced that the IT professionals who develop their business skills will find things plenty hot enough.

Chris Pickering is president of Systems Development Inc., an IT research and consulting firm. He also is a senior consultant for the Cutter Consortium. His latest industry survey, “Strategic Trends in Information Technology,” is available now. He may be reached at [email protected].