Must-Have Non-Technical Skills for IT Pros

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You have all the top-notch certifications, you’re on top of all the latest technologies and you’ve put in a number of years with the same company. All signs point to a vertical move within your enterprise. However, when that next promotion comes down the line, you get passed up. Why? According to some experts, it might be your lack of non-technical skills. IT pros today need more than technology skills to graduate into managerial roles. It takes a combination of soft skills, business savvy and project management expertise to move up in today’s IT sector.

Andy Klein, professor and associate director of business programs at DeVry, said he’s seen this situation play out on a number of occasions. Within the IT and engineering industries, professionals often get relegated to never-ending, non-management positions. “Traditionally what happens to IT people and engineers is oftentimes they get stuck in what we call the back office,” Klein said. “What happens is they’ve got a relatively narrow set of important technical skills. But unless they have a broader management perspective, it’s very hard for them to get ahead. What our experience has been is unless IT professionals understand the world of management, they get bypassed for promotions. What their superiors say is, ‘Sally’s a very good IT person, but she really doesn’t understand how to work with people.’ This is a trend in the IT field for the last 10 to 15 years. IT professionals have become more and more aware of the fact that unless they develop management skills, they are going to get bypassed for promotions because they don’t know how to manage people. (At DeVry) we want our IT grads to have very strong IT skills. But we don’t want their careers to be limited to the position they receive right out of college.”

To break out of the back office, IT pros need a combination of non-technical skills in addition to strong technical knowledge, Klein said. In fact, according to Kirsten Hale, product-line director for management- and professional-skills courseware for Global Knowledge, the top three areas in which IT pros want to improve are communication skills, business-savvy skills and general-management skills. “Those are the top items managers are looking for to expand their horizons,” Hale said.

Communication skills have long been thorns in the sides of IT pros. However, according to Hale, the demand for technology professionals that can communicate effectively is going to continue increasing. “The role for the IT pro is changing,” she said. “They’re interacting with local business partners and handling contract management and outsourced jobs.”

Hale said in order for IT pros to be able to function in these new roles, they need to possess strong communication skills. Traditionally, technical schools haven’t emphasized soft skills, but that is starting to change. “The focus in school, if you look back, is heavy on science, but not necessarily heavy on working with other people,” Hale said. “I think that’s changing. Kids coming out of school now do a lot more interaction with teams. As more kids come out of these schools, we’ll see more employees having a different attitude.”

Klein said at DeVry students are required to take courses that enhance their soft skills. In addition, soft-skill development is worked into their technical courses. “They have to take courses on communication, both written and verbal, and they’re required to give presentations,” Klein said. “We also design an interface environment into many courses across the curriculum. In your technical courses, we ask the faculty to look for opportunities for students to give oral presentations. If we find that a student’s written communication skills are weak, we refer him or her to our academic help center where he or she can get guidance and tutoring.”

Klein said strong communication skills aren’t only necessary when IT pros enter management positions. They’re necessary throughout an IT pro’s career. “Let’s say you’re a network-systems analyst,” Klein said. “Your boss asks you to do an analysis of two different systems she’s thinking of buying. You do your research and write it up in a report. But your memo is full of misspellings, poor grammar and typos. Your boss is going to think less of you, and she’s not going to be able to see the good work and analysis that’s in there because you’re not able to communicate effectively.”

Klein said because of this potential problem, DeVry’s faculty takes grammar and typos into consideration when grading students. “You might do A-level content but C-level communication, and in the real world your boss is going to grade you down,” Klein said. “We ask our faculty to grade their students as if they’re employees submitting a real piece of work to you. Are they outstanding? Would you give them an assignment and be confident they’d do a good job? Students might ask, ‘What does it matter if I can write well? I’m a computer programmer.’ Well, it does matter. We feel it’s critical we impress upon them how important communication skills are.”

Business Savvy
In today’s marketplace, IT is increasingly becoming part of the average company’s day-to-day business. As a result, IT managers now have a seat at the executive table. So if IT pros want to get ahead, they need to know how to speak the same language as the corporate executives.

Hale said one of Global Knowledge’s most in-demand courses is “Business Skills for IT Professionals.” “It’s a three-day instructor-led or virtual course,” Hale said. “It’s one of these classes you could almost call an MBA in three days. It covers communication skills, strategic thinking, leadership skills, influencing others. It’s a good overview of the type of skills you would need.” The course begins with an introduction to professionalism and a review of management-science practices. In addition, the course covers quality-control standards in communications; learning how to identify when a meeting is appropriate, how to avoid a meeting if it isn’t necessary, and how to ensure meetings are productive; core fields of management science including motivation, negotiation, delegation, leadership and time management; critical thinking and effective decision-making; and best practices for problem solving.

Similarly, Klein said IT students at DeVry are required to take an introduction-to-business course. In addition, they’re encouraged to take finance and marketing courses. Klein said these skills are must-haves for today’s technical professionals. Without them, IT professionals are often left out of important business decisions within the company.

“A tech person, such as an IT person or engineer, needs to understand enough about accounting to be able to understand financial statements,” Klein said. “The most important thing they need to be able to do is understand budgeting. They have to be able to understand how to determine costs for the products they’re involved with and how the cost of the items they’re producing is determined. They need to understand how revenues are generated, how pricing occurs. They need to understand capital budgeting, which is how to establish how much money to put in the operating budget to purchase the goods and services their department needs. An IT person needs these basic financial skills so they’re not intimidated by the financial people. If you can’t talk to the finance people, they will bypass you, and you won’t have any input. If the students take the course, then they will understand enough so they can work with their financial analysts so they’re not shoved aside. They’ll be at the table with the marketing people and the finance people to help participate in decision-making.

“That leads to one other course I like to see IT people take, which is marketing,” Klein explained. “If they want to get ahead, if they want to become managers, the other big area where they need to be able to communicate is marketing. They need to understand what the marketing strategy is for the products and services that the firm sells. How does IT contribute to that? How does IT help or not help? An effective IT function can really help the firm successfully sell and promote its products. A poorly run IT department can make it impossible. We encourage IT students to take a marketing course so they’re able to communicate with marketing people in their own language.”

Management In addition to communication and business skills, IT pros need management skills to get ahead. “Project management is one of the top-10 certifications right now,” Hale said. “A lot of technical managers are looking for their teams to use more formal management techniques.”

According to Klein, IT pros need to learn that managing computers and managing people require two separate approaches. “This is something that tech people often have a problem with because they treat all people the same. But not all people are the same,” Klein said. “We emphasize how to manage individual differences and how to recognize that people are unique. Based on the individual profiles or thinking styles of the people you’re working around, individual orientation varies. There are certain ways to think about motivating and helping to lead and direct people based on their individual differences.”

From there, DeVry teaches IT students how to take those differences and work in teams. “Students have to take coursework on workgroup effectiveness,” Klein said.“The theme is, ‘How do you manage a high-performance workgroup?’ We use role playing. We use case studies. We do problem-solving simulations where the class members learn how to solve problems as a team. The most effective method is group-based problem solving. We teach that some teams are successful and some are not, and there are specific reasons why some teams are successful, and we identify why other teams fail.”

Along with people management and teamwork, Klein said it’s important for potential IT managers to understand the best methods for handling organizational change. “In this environment of hypercharge where the competitive environment is changing at a fast rate, the ability to be comfortable in a rapidly changing environment separates the winners from the losers,” Klein said. “We work on cases of successful versus unsuccessful changes cenarios. We use a lot of cases to identify situations where there have been technical changes or HR changes or strategic changes, and we’ll look at cases where they’ve been handled successfully and poorly. We determine how you derive change processes at the team level and organization level successfully.”

Klein said IT professionals also should learn human resources skills. “The most important soft skills are HR-management skills, such as staffing and selection, ”he said. “For employee selection, they’ve got to be able to understand how to recruit and interview and select the right people. And then they have to know how to get the new employees into the firm through orientation or on-boarding. The process for when someone comes from outside the firm to inside the firm is kind of ignored sometimes.“In addition, we emphasize organizational skills,” Klein explained. “We focus on leadership. We teach organizational culture and how to help shape a healthy and productive organizational culture. If they focus on developing these skills—managing people, working in teams and organizational culture—they get the promotions. A lot of IT people want to become managers after five to10 years. The real money and the real authority and influence belongs to the managers and not the tech people, but they have to know those areas to get ahead.”

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