What skills should modern IT professionals prioritise?

In the last few years, hybrid IT has taken centre stage, and in the current age of crippling uncertainty, it’s up to IT professionals to successfully manage on-premises, cloud, and software as a service (SaaS) infrastructures. Even before the pandemic, IT was experiencing role convergence, and the lines between IT responsibilities were becoming more blurred. Today, IT professionals are under even greater pressure to use their skills to ensure optimised, secure performance for the new remote workforce.

Necessity is driving these changes, but it has also added complexity, making it difficult for IT professionals to know what skills they should focus on. SolarWinds recently revealed the findings of its IT Trends Report 2020: The Universal Language of IT, which analyses this reality and looks at the skills modern IT pros should prioritise.

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a new normal, which has elevated technology professionals and made people recognise them as essential workers. But this has also brought with it a challenging period of remote work, ultimately putting the burden on IT environments to keep global organisations operating at full capacity. It’s a new reality for IT professionals, where roles have converged, and budgets remain focused on hybrid IT.

Our findings suggest the top three technologies influencing organisations’ staffing needs are cloud computing, security and compliance, and hybrid IT. This technology has created a scenario where supply is unable to meet demand. Currently, 48% of IT professionals entering the workforce don’t have the necessary skills to manage modern, distributed IT environments, outnumbering those who believe they possess these skills (28%) nearly two to one. As a result, this has created a need to retrain existing staff, increase on-premises responsibilities, and increase work-week hours.

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To deploy training and development where it can best create value, companies need to understand which skills to prioritise and where they must place additional focus.

Security is stepping up

Though emerging technology appears prominently in the press and the media focuses on things like artificial intelligence (AI) and edge computing, IT pros need to spend more time developing their hybrid IT and security skills. When asked about their staffing needs, organisations named cloud computing the most often (55%). This key area of focus was closely followed by security and compliance (52%) and finally by hybrid IT (34%).

It’s no surprise security continues to be a core focus for many IT professionals. As the number of bad actors taking advantage of more vulnerable networks and people grows, so will investment in cyber security. Currently, 65% of IT professionals say at least 10% of their daily responsibilities include IT security management.

Of these, the top three areas of security skills management are network security (48%), security information and event management (SIEM; 33%), and backup and recovery (29%). While pundits call for more trained cyber security specialists, existing IT professionals are flexing to accommodate these requirements in-house.

Emerging tech takes a back seat

Only a small number of people (26%) named emerging technologies — like AI, edge computing, microservices, and containers — as the biggest influence on their staffing needs. With less demand, organisations aren’t allocating their budgets to emerging technologies. This makes sense, given the recent economic challenges; nearly three-quarters (72%) of the respondents indicated their organisations’ tech budgets allocate less than 25% of their spending to emerging technologies. Although the hype of industry conferences and publications would have you think otherwise, these technologies remain buzzwords to many of the IT professionals “on the ground.”

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Nothing kills hype better than hands-on experience. After investing in engineering teams to build prototypes and evaluate emerging technologies such as cryptocurrencies, AI, and machine learning deployments, enterprises are discovering that many hyped technologies don’t add enough value or deliver significant modernisation or business transformation. As organisations reassess their priorities in the shadow of an oncoming recession, IT professionals should routinely ask management to define the core competencies of the business as they relate to technology and monitor for gaps between priorities and training.

For 2020, practical security and compliance are top — and growing — priorities. Leveraging technology solutions with a breadth and depth of cross-functional visibility can help bridge the gap for organisations working to develop the skill sets of their current staff or in the process of hiring specialists to manage these responsibilities. In the next year, security must enter the core competency set of every IT pro.

Non-technical skills are a priority

Though technical skills, like those accompanying cyber security and emerging tech are a focus, IT professionals are coming to realise that non-technical skills are a critical element of their career development and IT management. When asked which of these were most important, IT pros listed project management (69%), interpersonal communication (57%), and people management (53%).

According to the LinkedIn 2020 Emerging Jobs Report, the demand for soft skills like communication, collaboration, and creativity will continue to rise across the SaaS industry. Despite the budget and skills issues IT professionals report, 53% of those surveyed said they’re comfortable communicating with business leadership when requesting technology purchases, investing time/budget into team trainings, and the like.

Though developing tech skills is often informed by current areas of expertise, the 2020 IT Trends Report reveals strong IT performance is about more than IT skills. Interpersonal skills are commonly referred to as “soft skills”, which is misleading. They rank highly in overall importance, meaning soft skills aren’t optional. They’re human skills — everyone needs to relate to other people and speak in a way they can understand. My advice in this area would be to find a mentor, someone on your team who can help you learn. Practice your communication skills and try your hand at new specialties like project management.

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Final thoughts

The last two decades have ushered in sweeping changes for IT departments. From virtualisation and mobility to cloud computing and digital transformation, IT is showing no signs of slowing down. This has been exacerbated by the current health crisis as businesses cope with a challenging period of remote work. This ultimately places more of a burden on the IT environments keeping global organisations operating. The Universal Language of IT details the evolving and increasingly critical role of technology in business and the IT professionals responsible for ensuring overall performance to drive business success.

In response, IT professionals and business leadership must hasten their efforts to move past the hype and focus on a few key areas. They should be free to invest their IT departments’ time, resources, and efforts to develop skills in the technologies with the greatest impact on business. Similarly, committing to upskilling in priority areas should not be considered a luxury. Both technical (hybrid IT, security and compliance) and human skills such as interpersonal collaboration will be key in the year ahead to address challenges introduced by role convergence and added complexity.

Written by Sascha Giese, head geek at SolarWinds

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