Skills of the mobile trade

What IT skills are required to support today's mobile-empowered enterprise and which of these do workers lack? Industry observers share their thoughts.

An understanding of how mobile devices and applications operate within a networked environment, ability to develop embedded applications, and expert knowledge of wireless communication protocols--these are skills IT workers should have if they are serious about making a career in tech support, say industry observers.

Past studies revealed that enterprises believe managing a mobility environment is the same as managing a traditional fixed-line network. This misassumption led companies to underestimate the impact unique requirements of a mobile business environment have on IT support.

Fortunately, this is no longer the case.

As the use of mobile technology becomes prevalent, many enterprises are also becoming shrewd in their head-hunting strategies as they move to beef up their tech support units with properly-trained individuals.

According to Tammy Tan, corporate communications officer at Singapore-based ComfortDelGro, managing a mobile workforce requires IT personnel equipped with a special set of skills. The public transport operator, with a fleet of over 11,700 cabs, has been utilizing mobile technology to improve the service of its cabbies as early as the mid-1990s.

In 1996, its taxis were equipped with global positioning systems (GPS) to monitor movements of each vehicle island-wide. The data is also used to match phone bookings with the taxi nearest to the location of the customer's pickup point.

In 2003, the company completed installation of its Driver Online Enquiry System, allowing cabbies to remotely access and update their personal information.

As mobility plays a mission critical role in the organization's operations, ComfortDelGro keeps its system updated by automating the deployment of new mobile applications or application updates over the air (OTA).

In an e-mail interview, Tan said that apart from network administration skills, staff who support ComfortDelGro's mobile infrastructure also need to be proficient in programming mobile applications.

"The mobile applications running on the embedded platforms require different programming skillsets," she said. "[It also takes] additional skill sets to address wireless network management and security issues."

She added that an IT employee needs to be conversant in embedded platform development work as well as "be able to deliver solutions for optimal performance with different communication protocols, including GSM, 3G, GPRS (general packet radio service), Bluetooth and Wi-Fi."

According to Ng Koh Wee, CIO of Singapore-based Great Eastern Holdings an IT professional should also have a deep understanding of how mobile devices and applications operate within a networked environment, in order to manage a mobile infrastructure.

The insurance company, which employs over 2,000 consultants, has been utilizing mobile technology for more than a year to improve its operational efficiencies. In 2005, it launched the Electronic Mobile Advisory Solutions (E-MAS) point-of-sale (POS) system to allow workers to perform electronic submission and processing of insurance proposals while in-the-field.

"Even when support organizations are well-trained to handle [mobile] devices, they will probably not be familiar with the idiosyncrasies of network availability and performance."
--Bernard Ng,
Java Troopers

Ng said mobile technology has enabled the organization to provide better customer service, through a faster turnaround time and improved staff productivity. "[But] there is definitely some level of difference between supporting a mobile [environment] from one that is not mobile," he said, in an e-mail interview.

Using Great Eastern's E-MAS platform as an example, Ng explained: "In our case, we put in a POS system that allows our insurance agents to close a sale in one [customer] visit.

"But a mobile solution could [either] be one that is constantly connected, through a kind of wireless network or connection, or one that is only intermittently connected," he said. "So, from a technical support perspective, it is necessary that our support staff have the skills to engineer an infrastructure that is [both] secure and resilient enough to support the volume of business [running on the different networks]."

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, Matt Kolon, CTO of Juniper Networks, warned of the widening gulf in IT skills that organizations face as they shift from a fixed-line environment to a mobile one.

"I think there're a lot of variables [between] what mobility and remote access introduce into an IT department [and what it] tries to do," Kolon said. "[And] if you're talking about IT departments in the pre-mobility era, no, I don't think they are well-equipped."

"IT support departments have to understand things like IP (Internet Protocol) WAN (wide area network) capability, IP application performance, plus a glut of security issues related to mobility that they were never previously exposed to in a fixed [line network] environment," he said.

To address these challenges, Kolon said, IT managers can look at vendor-based tools in the market. "People need to educate themselves and they need to take advantage of the tools the industry has out there," he said.

Bernard Ng of Java Troopers believes that IT support staff accustomed to serving fixed-line systems should widen their fields of expertise. Founded last year, Java Troopers is a Singapore-based IT consulting services provider.

Ng said: "Even when support organizations are well-trained to handle [mobile] devices, they will probably not be familiar with the idiosyncrasies of network availability and performance.

"GPRS and 3G performance will vary greatly across different parts of different cities in different countries," he said.

Is certification necessary?
Can certification offer a way to bridge the skills gap? Kolon certainly thinks so, though he sees this as merely a stop-gap measure.

Instead, he urged for more universities to form partnerships with technology vendors in order to keep their curriculum up-to-date.

Ng, too, believes in the value of certification but thinks the enterprise mobile space is too diverse and evolving too quickly for any useful certification.

He explained: "If I wanted someone to develop a mobile Java application, I may demand Sun Microsystems' Certified Mobile Application Developer certification. What I would also do is to determine if the candidate had a big-picture understanding of enterprise mobility and any [other] relevant experience."

Kolon added that third-party training can help tackle the issue of mobility skills certification. "Certification goes hand-in-hand with training and we're still lacking some mobility-centric certification that the average IT director can require of his people," he said. "I think at this point, the industry isn't quite there yet that if you have so-and-so certificate, [it means] you are fully versed in all the different skills that are required to understand [and manage] mobility."

"Certification goes hand-in-hand with training and we're still lacking some mobility-centric certification that the average IT director can require of his people."
--Matt Kolon
CTO, Juniper Networks

He also advised IT managers and graduates to obtain training from the different vendors, on top of their generic tertiary education. "I think that's really necessary," Kolon said. "I feel that the state of the technology is moving so quickly that the only people up-to-date with it are the vendors themselves."

However, Ng cautioned against obtaining only vendor-specific IT skills and training, and bypassing a generic university or tertiary education.

"I won't comment on generic university educations, but someone with a very poor technical foundation who is trained in vendor-specific products is at best a monkey who usually presses the right buttons," he said. On the other hand, he noted, someone with a sound technical education will always be able to pick up--on their own--the necessary skills to manage most vendor products.

Ng said: "The ideal situation is to have personnel, with a decent technical foundation, attend just enough vendor-based training.

"At the end of the day, it is not just the instructor-led training but operational use of the product that will develop their expertise, and thus, their ability to support users well," he said.

Farihan Bahrin is a freelance IT writer based in Singapore.

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