Five Essential Skills for Today’s IT Professionals

IT professionals Northwest Michigan is home to many IT professionals. According to a 2014 survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 880 individuals are employed locally as systems analysts, computer programmers, software developers, network administrators, support specialists, web developers, database administrators, and similar occupations.

The demand for quality IT employees continues to grow. Keith E. Kelly, Program Coordinator for Robotics and Automation at Northwest Michigan College (NMC), comments, “We hear regularly from employers about the challenges of finding IT talent. Most recently, I spoke with a local manufacturer RJG that had to enlist the help of a recruiter to find a software developer.” According to Kelly, NMC’s Computer Information Technology (CIT) Developer program has been recognized by the State of Michigan, but more students are needed in their pipeline. “NMC’s two-year alternative to a university’s computer science degree can help meet this demand for applicants with technical skills.”

Michelle Socha, Business Liaison for Northwest Michigan Works!, sees similar challenges with local employers seeking technology applicants. “There’s a steady stream of job openings for traditional computer positions like support specialists and network administrators, as well as requests for applicants in new fields like digital marketers and web developers.”

With a blossoming market for tech in Northwest Michigan, what are the essentials skills for today’s IT professionals?

1. Certifications and Continuous Learning

First and foremost, a deep and broad understanding of current technology is vital. If you peruse IT job listings, there’s always a list of recommended or required degrees, certifications, and knowledge. And that know-how needs to remain fresh. It’s important to always continue learning to stay ahead of technology changes. Citrix estimates that most technical skills learned in college or on the job have a shelf life of only 18 months.

Luckily, there are endless learning resources, including college courses, online certifications, conferences, white papers, articles, technical documentation, and online communities. Staying current with technology does involve a time and financial commitment, but an IT professional’s success depends on it. It also behooves employers to work hand-in-hand with their employees to ensure their staff stays current. Safety Net, a managed IT services company headquartered in Traverse City, helps fund staff members’ certifications and designates four hours weekly as training time. [Full disclosure: author’s company.]

2. Effective Communication

Good communication skills are critical in all aspects of an IT job. Professionals who are good listeners and can empathize with others are often able to help diffuse frustrating technical situations. An ability to communicate the positive impact new technology can have on an organization encourages management buy-in on tech investments. Once management approvals are obtained and new technologies are implemented, long-term success depends upon the rapport built between the IT professional and company staff.

“We seek candidates with specific programming skills such as JavaScript, Python, and PHP and database experience with MySQL and PostgreSQL, but they also need to be able to present to an audience in a friendly, non-technical way,” says Dylan Valade, Web Designer and Business Developer at Sungem (Petoskey), a website design and hosting company.

3. Analytical

Solving IT problems requires analyzing causes and their potential effects, and evaluating different scenarios and possibilities. These investigations often have to be done quickly, in high pressure situations with anxious end-users or management awaiting solutions.

“Whether you’re developing software or troubleshooting a network issue, you need to have good deductive reasoning ability and resourcefulness,” says Derek Smith, co-founder and interim CEO of Naveego (Traverse City), a business intelligence and master data management company. “Without these skills, you could lose valuable time looking in the wrong place for a solution.”

4. Hands-On Experience

Experience and technology exposure on a resume can really stand out to potential employers. “Certifications and degrees don’t necessarily ensure the quality of a potential new hire’s skills. We prefer experience and referrals,” says Tom Barrons, owner and partner at Byte Productions (Traverse City), a website design, development and hosting company. “For recent graduates who may not have that experience, we look at personal projects. These coding examples can tell us about their organizational skills and attention to detail.”

5. Business Aptitude

Lastly, tech professionals need to develop a deep understanding of the business and the industry in which they operate. An awareness of company strategy can help them properly set priorities and allocate resources to ensure that the IT infrastructure supports corporate growth plans. They also need to act as the conduit between technology and the employees within their organization who use it every day. A greater knowledge of employees’ work processes and technology use can lead to changes that could improve efficiency and productivity.

It’s a certainty that the technology field will continue to change, but if IT professionals (and their employers) continue to evolve with it, the chances for success will as well.

Note: This article, written by Safety Net’s Client Services and Communications Manager Shannon Wilcox, was featured in Traverse City Business News (TCBN)’s November 2015  issue.