Monday, November 13, 2006

Beyond the Digithead: Why You Need Skills Other than I.T.

The students in my project management class inspired me to write this column. One student made some valid arguments on how some of the subjects that he had to learn in his degree program were a waste of his time because he could not see how he could apply the subjects to his career in information technology. Another student had a more colorful analogy when he was talking about his thoughts on learning about business principles. I don't want to give the exact analogy, but it has to do with a vice strategically placed on a body part. I explained to them that in order to be successful in your career, you need to know about more subjects other than I.T. Here is the explanation that I gave to my students:

I feel your pain. Believe me, when I was in school, it pained me to sit through my History of Religion class because I could not see the significance of it in relation to my career goals. To this day, I still don't see the significance, unless I've decided to work in a theological institute. There is a method to the school's madness, though.

The business climate may be changing (especially in I.T.), but business's goal remains the same - make a profit. For the sake of profitability, companies are going to choose their human resources carefully. Why should the company pay you a starting salary of $40,000 to do nothing but write programs when they can pay a more qualified, more educated individual in another country nearly 1/2 that salary to do nothing but write programs? Maybe you are a knowledgable network administrator with industry certifications, and you may think that you are virtually immune to outsourcing compared to your software programmer or technical support colleagues. So, network administrators, what can you offer the company other than "you know how networks work"? A company can outsource their network needs to a local, third-party company - a contractor is treated differently than an employee regarding taxes (to the business's advantage), and even if they pay a retainer fee, it's cheaper than hiring a human resource.

Companies view human resources as an investment because there is a lot of cost involved with hiring someone - salary, benefits, bonuses, and federal and state taxes. They want a high return on that investment. You need other skills besides I.T. to make yourself valuable to potential employers. An employer needs to know that they're not just getting a "code jockey" or "technician". An employer wants an employee that can do more, such as:

  • Write memos about I.T. issues in a way that everyone can understand.

  • Write documentation for Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) or Internation Organization for Standardization (ISO) compliance, and understand what SOX and ISO is.

  • Provide training and support to internal and external customers in a way that a layperson can understand.

  • Assist in the interview process

  • Assist with business decisions for a technology, such as: cost analysis, business justification for the expense, and impact on the current day-to-day business

  • Design the product (hardware or software) not just to "look cool", but to improve the business process

  • Assist with product sales and marketing

  • Understand the positive or negative impact on the company that a decision or decisions can cause

  • Understand a customer's culture

The non-technical classes give you the additional knowledge that you need to be competitive in the job market and to be a valuable investment to a company. It is not a requirement to like the courses, but it is a requirement for your career development to learn in those courses.

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