Lucrative IT careers off the beaten path

Think you want to be a CIO or CTO? Think again.

What you might really want is to be a chief delivery officer or chief process officer.

Software developers eager to advance should consider looking for product architect roles. Network and security administrators may want to start looking for positions as electronic privacy specialists. If business analytics is your area of expertise, your next promotion might be to the job of information architect.

And one more thing: Don’t expect to be part of an IT department. As a 21st century technology professional, your future — and most likely your desk — will be deeply rooted in the business, and your title will likely be scrubbed of any hint of computers, databases, software development languages or data networks.

“We’ll see new and made-up titles come about,” predicts David McCue, CIO at Computer Sciences Corp., a global consulting, systems integration and outsourcing company. “I’ve already seen new cards and new titles like guru of X, advocate for Y and ombudsman of Z,” he says.

“To me, that signals the beginning step in a maturity cycle. It doesn’t feel right to call [a changing role] the same thing, so you make something up. Some of the titles stick, and some you get a good chuckle about after 18 months or so,” McCue adds.

CSC is also changing where and how it places some of its IT professionals within companies. “The traditional IT department is beginning to morph into a series of individuals who are comfortable using technology and who know its inherent characteristics,” McCue says. “They are becoming embedded into the businesses as technology mentors. These are the people on the business development team who use the tools to create a pretty or sticky Web site.”

It’s all about business

Jonathan Thatcher, director of business integration for the Chicago-based Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), says he has already begun to see changes in IT titles that downplay specific technologies and focus more on business attributes. “Wireless technicians, for example, are turning into mobility support staff, and tech support is called high-availability support,” he notes.

Key factors driving the evolution of IT job titles and roles include the commoditization of technology, plus an ever-growing base of new workers who are technologically savvy and quite accustomed to having technology play a background role in just about everything they do.

These workers and the industries they’re in have less of a need for computer programmers and help desk analysts because they either know how to program themselves or the help they need is built right into the software they’re using to do their own jobs.

“IT is no longer a subset specialty. IT is integrated into whatever work you’re trying to get done,” says Patti Dodgen, vice president at Mosaica Partners LLC, an IT consulting company specializing in the health care industry. In that industry, for example, “there is a huge drive to fill positions with someone who has a foot in both the medical world and the technology world,” Dodgen says.

No one knows exactly what to call these positions, she says, but they definitely include more than pure technical skills. “If you have been a heads-down programmer, you’re at a terrible disadvantage” to secure one of these new roles, says Dodgen. “But if you’ve been on an application development team and worked with a business partner to facilitate their goals, you have a big leg up,” she adds.

“The IT department is being disintermediated, but in a good way. It is being pushed farther up the food chain,” says Kamud Kalia, CIO at Toronto-based Direct Energy, an US$8 billion integrated energy services company. “A lot of stuff IT would have done, they no longer need to do. The problems have been fixed or the technology has been commoditized.”

Ten years ago, for example, “you’d put smart guys on the project of joining applications together,” Kalia says. “Now, middleware has obviated the need for that. You still want to have smart people, but you want them solving business problems, not technical ones.”

With that shift in mind, CompTIA made changes to its Tech Career Compass, which tracks IT job titles and the skills required to fill IT various roles. “We put in a whole section on communication skills, dealing with customer relationship management and security,” explains Gretchen Koch, director of skills development.

Goodbye, systems analysts

Still other companies, like Animas, a Johnson & Johnson company in West Chester, Pa., are eliminating traditional IT roles and titles, such as systems analysts and administrators, as they either outsource data centers or contract with vendors to provide software as a service.

“Outsourcing, globalization and the cost reduction for WAN technology all work to eliminate the need for systems administrators, help desk people or developers,” says Animas CTO Bogdan Butoi. “We don’t want developers on our staff for all of these technologies. We pretty much have kept only business-savvy people who we expect to be partners in each department and to come up with solutions.

“I don’t know if at some point we will be a [completely] distributed IT department with resources in each business department, or if we’ll stay as a central IT department,” he adds. “Right now, we have relationship managers for each department. We’re still an IT department, but we have dedicated IT people for each department.”

It is IT, for example, that conducts focus groups with physicians, patients and others to develop new products and software for the glucose pumps, insulin meters and other diabetes-related products that Animas develops. Another telling indicator of IT’s deeply embedded business role: “IT is measured on how many original products come from us without anybody asking for them. We’re being measured on how we’re pushing innovation,” Butoi says.

While job titles for these emerging roles have yet to be standardized, the overall career focus seems pretty clear: It’s all about business. The one trend that virtually all of the emerging IT titles and roles seem designed to reflect is technology professionals’ inextricable connection to the products and/or services their companies provide and not to specific technologies or gear like Java or WANs.

“You’ll see titles like ‘solutions architect’ and ‘product architect’ that convey involvement in providing the product or service to a purchaser, as opposed to titles like ‘network engineer,’ says CSC’s McCue.

This is because “the notion of separation between IT and operations has been totally blurred,” says TNS North America CIO Enzo Micali, who in January acquired the additional title and responsibilities of executive vice president of operations at the 14,000-person global custom research company.

TNS has no computer programmers, for example. “Everyone is either an architect or engineer — someone who has to have deep technological capabilities to automate a business process that they know just as deeply,” Micali says.

At Direct Energy, job titles — especially titles in the 350-person IT organization — are purposely kept vague. “We keep the titles generic, and people can apply descriptive labels to what they do,” says Kalia.

“I want them to think of themselves as people who work for this company, not people who work for this company’s IT department,” he says. “We have an energy supply business to manage. That’s our business, and we want to do it as efficiently as possible. It doesn’t really matter what the IT job is.”

Similarly, $10 billion electric power and natural gas utility Xcel Energy in Minneapolis is experimenting with making some traditional IT roles and responsibilities somewhat unstructured so as not to inhibit innovation.

“We’re using our business analytics group to start this,” explains CIO Mike Carlson. “We’re looking for people who are just insatiably curious about getting an answer to a problem. It’s almost a hacker mentality. These are people who keep churning [data] and looking for relationships and data that supports hypotheses.”

The company puts these workers in an undefined role and gives them a business issue to work on. For example, “maybe the CFO says there should be more money in the checkbook and asks why there isn’t,” Carlson says. “They then tear apart the data and build it back up to come up with an answer.”

A college degree is not necessarily required to fill these roles, Carlson says. It’s the curiosity that counts. Xcel has sought the help of an industrial psychologist to help identify potential employees with the curiosity and drive to trawl through data and uncover information that could be used to cut costs, improve efficiency and generate revenue.

The primary factor behind this strategy is an overwhelming volume of data. “We have tons and tons of data, and we have to turn it into a useful product,” Carlson says. “Putting data in a business context is absolutely key.”

Now in its third year, this IT hiring and organizational strategy has about a 60% success rate, Carlson says. It’s not for everyone. “Some people have been terribly unhappy” in the less structured environment, he says.

According to Anthony Hill, CIO at Golden Gate University, which has outsourced virtually all of its technology operations, “IT is being driven out of the business of managing technology. Traditional IT has been about data centers, servers, software development, software implementation, and the maintenance and management of all of that,” he notes. Not any longer.

“IT will focus more on analysis and be more involved in the early life-cycle tasks [of developing products and services] and less on technology delivery. IT will focus more on simulation, content and information architecture,” Hill says. The bottom line: “Moving away from technology management doesn’t take IT out of the picture. It changes what IT does.”

Still room for geeks

To be sure, there are still plenty of traditional IT titles and jobs to be had across all industries. Virtually all of the CIOs, analysts, IT job experts and career advisers interviewed for this story acknowledge that IT is at the very beginning of this trend.

“What we’re describing is still very aspirational,” says Vinnie Mirchandani, founder of Deal Architect Inc. and a former technology industry analyst and outsourcing executive. “There is still a viable and clear career path for techies.”

CIOs say that as long as ease of use remains high on the IT priority list, there will be room for the most technical of techies in IT. The reason: Simpler-to-use technology still involves a lot of complexity.

“IT is really moving in two directions at once,” observes Lynn Vogel, CIO at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “We’re paying much more attention to the user experience, including graphic design and ease of navigation, but all of that makes it more complicated on the back end.”

As a result, Vogel says, M.D. Anderson “will continue to invest in deeper and deeper technical skills. Technology is getting easier to use, but to make it easier to use, we have to be a lot smarter in IT.”

At Direct Energy, Kalia says he still has “a bias toward IT guys who are classically trained, but have the mental agility to take on other tasks.”

There will always be a need for technical work to be done, even if you opt to outsource the bulk of your IT operations, he observes. “If you don’t have someone technical leading and managing that, you don’t get a good following, because technical people don’t respect nontechnical people,” Kalia says.

“The other thing you don’t have is a good B.S. detector,” he adds. “So I always look for not just a slightly technical background, but a deep technical background. Even in junior people, I want a deep technical background, and then I expose them to other things in the company.”

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