Computerworld’s prediction of “5 indispensable IT skills of the future”

I tend to devour and digest most of my news on the same day that it’s published. This doesn’t always provide an opportunity for serious reflection and contemplation — but news that’s more than a day or two old, in this age of instant-everything, is like yesterday’s oatmeal. It’s like watching re-runs of the Dave Letterman show, even when you know you haven’t seen it before…

Fortunately, there are exceptions, and one of them bubbled up to the top of my news pile just a few moments ago: an August 23, 2010 Computerworld article (10 days old!) titled “5 indispensable IT skills of the future,” by Stacy Collett. Articles like this tend to pop up every year or so, and I’m always curious to see whether the author believes that today’s hot new programming language will achieve mainstream status a decade from now, or whether all of the existing COBOL programmers will finally die of old age. But the essential-skills list suggested in this article was different, in an interesting way; it consisted of the following:

  1. Analyzing data
  2. Understanding risk
  3. Mastering robotics
  4. Securing information
  5. Running the network

I’m not sure where Ms. Collett got this particular list; she attributes it to “futurists and IT experts,” and since her LinkedIn profile says she has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in journalism, I’m willing to assume that she found a bunch of these people, and accurately reported their opinions on the subject. And since my own crystal ball has been sent to the neighborhood repair shop for its annual tune-up and lube job, I’m willing to assume that the opinions of these anonymous futurists and experts is more-or-less correct. Even so, what’s interesting to me is that four of the five categories on the list are already important; only the skill of “mastering robotics” seems a tad futuristic to me.

Look at the other items on the list:

  • Ms. Collett says market-research firm IDC is predicting that by 2020, we’ll be generating 35 million petabytes of data, and that we’ll have our hands full analyzing all that data, defining what data is needed, and figuring out where to get it. Frankly, I think we saw the beginning of that trend nearly 20 years ago; in any case, technical specializations like data-mining, data visualization, and data analysis are already sought-after skills.
  • Similarly, risk management is something we’ve been trying to do for at least 20 years in the IT field, if not longer. There are a number of excellent books describing the technical aspects of risk management, but as Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister point out in their excellent book, Waltzing With Bears (published in 2003), the most serious problems are usually political and cultural. Whenever you hear a manager loudly proclaim to his or her project team, “We have no risks on this project — we have only opportunities!”, you can be reasonably sure that several of the project team members will decide that the best course of action is to keep their mouth shut.
  • Securing information is also something that was a sufficiently marketable technical skill that you could be reasonably confident of using it to get a well-paid job 10, 20, or 30 years ago. Maybe we didn’t pay much attention to cyber-security and cyber-terrorism until after 9/11, and maybe things are more difficult now that nearly every human being on the planet has access to the Internet from a handheld device … but we certainly don’t have to wait until 2020 to acknowledge that security is an indispensable IT skill.
  • Running the network is already an apt description of how many of today’s viable corporations operate their business on a day-to-day business: if you take down the network, you stop the business dead in its tracks. For that matter, if you stop the network, you stop most people dead in their tracks: without our smartphones, our iPads, and our GPS navigation devices, most of us would have a difficult time getting out of the house and into the office.

No doubt there are still lots of people in the IT industry who don’t have these skills — COBOL, after all, is not yet dead, and there are lots of marginal workers coasting along with skills that could probably be outsourced to the other side of the world now, but which still have some economic value. But as a related Computerworld article (“IT Careers 2020: Cloudy days ahead,” by Julia King) says, “Computer programmers have gone the way of the typing pool.” So, data analysis, risk management, information security, and network operations are the skills to emphasize on our resumes over the next decade.

Oh, yeah, and robotics. Now that sounds exciting. As Ms. Collett says in her summary of career futures, “robotics jobs will involve research, maintenance and repair.” Maintenance and repair doesn’t sound like much fun, but if we need more research in this area, maybe I should go back to school and find out what it’s all about…

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