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How to get ahead in IT: Swap the geek speak for the spreadsheet

A techie's guide to understanding the bosses' biz

By Rachel Willcox, 28 Nov 2014

Increasingly, we're told, IT types who "understand" their organisation's business can help their business and get ahead. But what does “understanding” the business actually mean? Why does it matter and how does an ambitious IT professional get the mix of skills needed to attain that understanding and also hit the fast track?

The IT recruitment market is flying, having picked up to a post-recession high. As IT recruiters battle to fill vacancies, competition for the best people has led to a frenzied market, with the right candidates being offered jobs at interview stage and the most sought-after skills commanding salaries up 10 per cent on this time last year.

Despite the buoyancy of the market, companies still complain of skills shortages as the quest for a new breed of business-focused IT pros steps up a pace. And while the temptation may be for technical roles to wow prospective bosses with jargon and lists of technical certifications, many roles today encourage you to park the geek-speak.

From programmer to project manager, regardless of the technical intricacies of your role “employers increasingly favour well-rounded IT workers with a mix of soft skills, business savvy and technical knowledge, over one-dimensional techies,” Tom Reilly, vice president at CompTIA Learning, told The Reg. Such is the need for people who can straddle both business and IT that companies are resorting to moving technically minded business people into IT in their desperation to achieve that blend.

The IT department is increasingly being seen as a profit rather than a cost centre with IT budgets commonly split between keeping the lights on and spend on innovation and revenue-generating projects.

“Historically IT was about keeping the infrastructure running and there was no real understanding outside of that, but the days of IT being locked in a basement are gradually changing,” managing director of recruiter Spring Technology Richard Protherough said.

The evolution shouldn’t come as a surprise: the IT department is increasingly being seen as a profit rather than a cost centre with IT budgets commonly split between keeping the lights on and spend on innovation and revenue-generating projects. We’re also seeing far more CIOs on the board rather than reporting into the CFO or director of resources.

Rob White, a specialist technology and project recruitment consultant at Venn Group, has noticed growing demand for roles that can straddle business and IT competencies. Project managers have long been in demand but now the role of product manager is one increasingly in demand among tech start-ups in particular, White says. “They don’t need to write the code but they need to understand technology to deliver the project as quickly as possible,” he adds.

You're not as daft as you're cabbage looking: Train up and you can beat the MBAs at their own game

And yet a recent report by the Prince’s Trust revealed that more than 40 per cent of companies are experiencing skills gaps within their firms, prompting the Royal Academy of Engineering earlier this year to launch a new programme through its Enterprise Hub to help growing businesses overcome their skills gaps.

Pathways to Growth invites SMEs to apply for up to £20,000 to provide training and support in any area that will help them grow their business. “From the first round of applications, we’ve seen that these organisations have especially been looking for support to develop staff skills in sales, marketing, networking and design,” says Arnoud Jullens, head of enterprise at the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Don't wait for your boss

For those corporates racking their brains as to the best way to achieve that mix of skills, Protherough says companies have to accept that they will have to take on a lot of the responsibility for training staff. “You’ll have to grow your own. It’s about cross-training, engaging the business into IT and getting departments to collaborate on projects.

For ambitious individuals, it’s more important than ever that they can show themselves, whether through their CVs, social media presence or during the interview process, as being in possession of the skills needed to interact with the multiple business departments in an engaging and approachable way.

Rather than rely on your boss to send you on a training course, employees with a career game plan need to take responsibility for their own development and nurture the business skills so sought after by industry. Fundamentally it’s about being interested, according to Protherough.

Learn to talk 'corporate'

“Talk to different areas of the business to understand how it works and what their goals are. Being proactive and approaching senior business people with ways IT can solve business problems and value will make a real impact,” he said.

Michael Snow, business development manager at Capita IT Resourcing, agrees it is increasingly relevant for IT professionals to have an insight into any business “roadmaps” and future objectives so that planning and IT decisions can be made ahead of time with little impact on “business as usual” processes.

“Employees need to invest the time and effort into appreciating the mechanics of the corporate environment and how each element is connected, so that it can operate as one unit. This allows them to not only visualise where IT fits within the company, but also how it aids any business decisions,” Snow says.

The ability to become visible within a company is key to gaining the recognition that many deserve, Snow adds, and in that respecting abandoning the TLAs is definitely a good thing.

“Individuals need to learn to talk the corporate language in order to stand out,” Snow said. “IT professionals also need to appreciate the impact of company decisions and how these will filter down to IT and other divisions in order to really demonstrate to the organisation just how valuable their role is.”

Not all IT experts find self-promotion and the articulation of their own strengths particularly easy. Unless people master such skills, though, career progression could suffer.

You might have to ditch the laptop and brush up on the dreaded 'soft skills'

The onus isn’t just on the IT department to see the bigger picture, according to Alex Kleiner - EMEA general manager of procurement software company Coupa. Kleiner believes the disconnect between business and IT is also, in part due, to the fact that line-of-business teams have their own agenda and often don’t have the ability to express exactly what they want from their colleagues in IT.

“Functional areas such as finance and procurement are very process driven. In some respects, they are very similar to where IT was five years ago, before people started bringing in their own devices and expecting IT to work around them. I find that getting to know these processes – and more importantly, the terminology that goes around them – is a great opportunity for IT, as it can sometimes be easier to use their own terms in order to establish that common ground,” Kleiner explains.

The rest of the business can learn from YOU

Where IT can help is to give the line-of-business team a vision of how they can fulfil their roles more effectively, Kleiner adds. “IT has spent years getting “closer to the business” and other teams can learn from this experience. Procurement has its own gap between employees and those power users that set policy – IT can help close that gap and get line of business teams closer together, delivering more effectively in the process.”

However technically proficient they may be, not all IT experts find self-promotion and the articulation of their own strengths particularly easy. Unless people master such skills, though, career progression could suffer, warns the managing director and co-founder of online training company Filtered.com Marc Zao-Sanders.

“Throughout their careers, IT pros focus on building up their technical competencies and getting to grips with the latest skills and ways of working - the likes of Agile and Java for example are skills employers constantly request,” Zao-Sanders said. But soft skills including communication, presentation and project management often get neglected.

“There’s much debate about where the responsibility of ensuring that staff remain skilled up lies, but ultimately, it’s the business that will suffer if staff are lacking the leadership skills needed to drive the business forward,” Zao-Sanders adds.

CIO in your sights

At a broad level, having a highly skilled workforce is crucial to ensuring the business is able to deliver growth. And at a personal level, understanding the business’s goals and strategy, and being able to help the business meet these is a crucial marker of success for personal development.

“Many employees can get caught up in the problems they encounter and bring those problems to their managers – showing you can instead bring a solution shows empathy and a business mind-set. Even if your boss doesn’t go with your solution – it will be greatly appreciated and clearly demonstrates business acumen,” Zao-Sanders says.

Bottom line: if you can achieve this, then you will stand a good chance of not just helping your organisation, but also of advancing IT within your operation and getting a better job – maybe even becoming a CIO. ®

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