Widespread digital transformation and automation spark need for new skills that will shape the future of IT.
In the pre-digital era, it was the tinkerers and nerds seeking computer science degrees. IT professionals were seen as technology alchemists. Today, the world of IT looks very different and requires an ever-evolving set of skills.
Tech-savvy millennials and Gen Zers who grew up on YouTube, Google, iPads and shows like “The Big Bang Theory,” which celebrated nerd culture, are taking over the workforce in larger numbers every year. And they’re often choosing tech over more traditional careers like finance. In fact, Glassdoor data shows that the role of software engineer is currently the most in-demand job for Gen Z applicants.
Why? What’s really motivating people to want to work in IT today? And why is tech still a rarity for women, who account for just 26 percent of the IT workforce, according to McKinsey & Company?
Digital DNA and Good PR
Being digitally savvy at an early age and having a higher profile for tech are two factors motivating people to build careers in technology, according to Ganes Kesari, co-founder and head of analytics at data science firm Gramener in Princeton, N.J.
“Having been raised digitally, [younger generations] are tech-savvy and hence more inclined towards a career in technology,” he said. “Inspirational success stories of tech titans and tech giants build interest in tech companies and IT roles.”
A generation ago, tech leaders weren’t household names, except for maybe Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Today, most people know of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Tesla’s Elon Musk among many other tech industry leaders. Now that IT encompasses the center of our universe, IT roles that offer a slice of the action look “too good to resist,” Kesari said.
“People want to be in the thick of things, where high-profile progress is being made,” he said.
And while everyone probably has a unique reason for choosing to enter this particular industry, certain common denominators stand out. In addition to digital familiarity and the “cool” factor, experts cited early exposure to coding, a passion for problem-solving and a deep desire to impact the world as motivators.
Most Valued Tech Skills
Will those passions dovetail with what tech employers need?
A recent study by LinkedIn identified cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and analytical reasoning as the top three hard skills companies need most in 2019. In the IT sector, experts also pointed to machine learning, DevOps and big data.
“Expect huge growth in automation, which will become more ubiquitous and change the nature of work,” said Eric Pearce, IT systems architect at Nutanix. His childhood hobby of building model trains and electronic devices to control them ultimately led him to pursue a career in tech.
“People in the past were OK with doing something manually, hundreds or thousands of times, and now that’s becoming unacceptable,” Pearce said. “Now it’s ‘you have to automate that.’ It’s no longer optional.”
Personality and Passion Matter
It’s becoming more critical for IT workers to have soft skills, according to David Armendariz, general manager of the technology division for Lucas Group, an executive recruiting firm in Atlanta.
“Soft skills and the ability to work with others have become so much more important,” Armendariz said. “You expect most IT talent to have a certain baseline of technical knowledge and aptitude, so where candidates now separate themselves is in their interpersonal skills.”
When hiring, Pearce looks for inherent passion, too, adding that the best IT candidates would likely be playing with tech even if it wasn’t their job.
“Ideally, you’re still kind of tinkering at home,” he said. “Maybe you’re building your own PC to make your video gaming experience better.”
Similarly, individuals who grow up solving logic puzzles, acing math Olympiads and creating mini Lego cities might find their grown-up selves enamored with tech. Case in point: serial tech entrepreneur Kira Makagon, co-founder and executive vice president of innovation at RingCentral, a cloud-based business phone company in Belmont, Calif.
A teen chess master with an unconventional upbringing, Makagon gravitated toward a career in computer science after realizing that good programmers can visualize good code the way they can visualize moves in a chess game.
“Creating a cohesive environment and being able to connect the dots remains a key piece of my career to this day,” she said. “And those are skills essential to chess.”
Minding the Gaps
According to Kesari, the same candidates who thrive on working “at the center of the action” often misread what is needed to make game-changing gadgets and state-of-the-art software.
“People get carried away with the magic of AI but forget all the drudgery involved in preparing data,” he said. “The cool technology of today requires painful, boring and manual work upstream and downstream. They need to build skills and patience in those adjacent areas as well.”
He pointed to two other potential gaps. One is candidates mastering technical skills but failing to apply them to solve real-world problems. The other is that IT jobs today go far beyond coding, requiring what Kesari called “multi-functional skills” such as design, user experience, behavioral psychology and sociology.
“The bigger the AI trend becomes, the more diverse this skill mix will get,” he said. “People are expected to pick up some of these as secondary skills. Or they must learn to appreciate and work with professionals from these nontraditional IT disciplines.”
Skills Shortage Persists
Though more young people are pursuing tech careers than in past generations, the IT industry still faces a major paucity of available talent. The cybersecurity area alone is experiencing a global shortfall of 3 million workers, according to (ISC)2.
“In an attempt to plug the demand numbers, MOOCs [massive open online courses] and finishing schools are rapidly churning out professionals who have learned the technical skills,” said Kesari. “But they aren’t industry-ready and falter on the job.”
Indeed, 87% of IT executives recently surveyed by the Robert Half International staffing services company said they struggled to find skilled tech professionals.
Employers can bridge those divides by investing in internships and retention programs, carefully screening applicants and constantly upskilling employees. Kesari also highlighted the importance of building diverse teams across gender, race, culture, geography and more. That can be tough to do when 83% of tech executives are white, or when a room full of 100 IT workers includes just two or three women, he said.
But there’s hope. Nonprofits like Girls in Tech—which offers mentoring, boot camps and training in coding—hope to do their part to alter the gender landscape.
“Women in tech have an opportunity to help grow the future population of women in tech by being accessible and visible to girls as mentors,” said Adriana Herrera, a Mexican-American tech entrepreneur who has participated in mentor events like SheLeads.io and knows firsthand about discrimination in the workplace.
“By changing the number of women who enter technology at a young age, there will be more women in technology as they grow up,” she said.
As digital technologies increasingly evolve and change our world, so, too, will the motives and skillsets of the professionals who develop and apply them, said Kesari.
“The problems of the future cannot be solved by the traditional workforce,” he said. “Employers need creative, diverse teams operating in unconventional team structures.”