The same technical advances that have pushed businesses to reexamine everything from their marketing campaigns to internal processes have also had a dramatic impact on IT departments. Much of this is due to the increasing prevalence of cloud-based services.
Once upon a time, in-house tech pros served as the gatekeepers of an organization’s technology. Departments such as Marketing, Finance or Sales submitted requests for technical tools, then worked with project managers and development teams to define the features they needed and the results desired. But when cloud-based CRM products such as Salesforce began to make inroads, that dynamic changed; for the first time, managers outside of IT could explore solutions before ever talking to their technology-centric colleagues.
This is when tech pros began to hear the dreaded term “soft skills.” As more business tools shifted from on-premises systems to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings, IT became less about designing, building and maintaining and more about advising, integrating and project management.
Make no mistake about it: your career’s success is no longer all about coding, architecture or other purely technical skills. “We’re at a tipping point where having soft skills and project management skills aren’t just a good idea,” said James Stanger, senior director of products at the IT trade organization CompTIA, based in Downer’s Grove, Ill. “Now they’re part of the table stakes of being an IT person.”
Katie Reisender, business manager at IT consultant Clarity Technology Partners in Los Altos, Calif., agrees. “The [skill-sets] in IT are changing,” she said. “It’s why the people with soft skills are the ones getting the jobs.” Strong technology skills, by themselves, simply aren’t enough anymore.
Tech’s Fundamental Role
None of this should come as a surprise. As Reisender points out, this transition isn’t anything new, though it’s progressed under an ever-changing series of buzzwords, starting with “ROI” to today’s emphasis on “collaboration” and “transparency.”
And none of this lessens IT’s role, suggested MJ Shoer, chief technology officer of Internet & Telephone, LLC, a managed services provider headquartered in Methuen, Mass.: “With most systems, you’re not managing them on-site, but in the cloud. That shifts the role, but doesn’t change it. Systems still have to be maintained.”
While some jobs might transition to the vendor, Shoer said, businesses still need networking experts who can manage infrastructure that emphasizes networks over servers; there’s also a perpetual need for tech professionals who can integrate cloud products into a company’s overall technology base.
“A hardcore coder is not going to make that change,” Shoer added. “They may need to look outside the organization [for their next job]. But someone who wants to stay with the business has to have skills in project management, be able to talk to stakeholders to find out what they need, and to keep vendors honest.” Their deep technical knowledge, for example, “can help identify things that will work in a way that may differ from what the vendor’s sales guy says.”
IT Becomes Integrated into the Business
IT done right is always about partnership, points out Michael Statmore, chief information officer at Progressive Business Publications in Malvern, Pa. As the shift to SaaS allows business to move faster, he said, “Your job is empowering users and integrating.”
For tech pros, that means combining technical expertise with business knowledge to ask internal customers the right questions, while at the same time understanding the impact one cloud solution may have on all of the company’s other systems. “What kind of network, security and traffic implications will each new system have?” asked Stanger.
The technology professional has to be much more a consultative person and advisor, Stanger continued. “They have to walk around in the marketing person’s skin for a while to understand the business need, recognizing the technical implications, and then solve them.”
“It’s a tough transition,” Statmore acknowledged. “To many of us, it’s been so ingrained to develop things ourselves. Learning how to let it all go is learning what’s important to business users. Let them know your role is to advise them and look out for their best interests.”
The key to success is transparency. “That gains you trust,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to say that something went wrong, but be sure to tell people when something went right, too.”
It also means tech pros need to educate their colleagues in other departments about how technical methodologies work. Always anxious to get new tools online, the sales department may not immediately understand that even the best SaaS solutions don’t simply plug in. You’ll need to explain how you’ll approach the project, and why each step is needed. They’ll need to know about the other projects you’re working on simultaneously and how management has laid out your priorities. “This is where communications and negotiating skills come in,” Stanger said.
“Remember, we have to look at things at a level of detail other people don’t,” Statmore added. “Think about opening a drawer. The user just pulls it open. But we know that at some point, someone asked whether they were designing a left-hand drawer or a right-hand drawer, and then someone had to build the right drawer and install it.”
In other words, business functions don’t always (or even often) understand technical processes. Today’s tech pro has to educate them, shepherd them through each project, and sometimes even protect them from themselves.