Business or technology? Two-tier blend of skills required to advance in the 2020s

'Tomorrow's leaders will need to have a dual focus that balances technical expertise with immersion in the mission'
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Digital isn't the only transformation going on these days -- there is also a profound career transformation reshaping the roles and aspirations of the people building the digital world. This is creating some confusion in the technology career space, as tech professionals are being told they need to pay more attention to developing business skills over their deep technological knowledge. 

Photo: Joe McKendrick

While tech managers and professionals are evolving to more business-focused roles, they also need to bring their technology skills to the table as well. "Some technologists who want to remain hands-on with deployment and innovation" -- and that's okay, says Haluk Saker, senior vice president for Booz Allen Hamilton. "Companies are making way for deep technical leadership and recognizing the value that senior IT engineers bring to executive-level discussions and decision-making. For those who are passionate technologists, who want to remain in the trenches, it's important to find companies and cultures that have made technical leadership a priority."  

To solve issues through technology, "it's not going to be about a new fix or functionality," says Saker. "Tomorrow's leaders will need to have a dual focus that balances technical expertise with immersion in the mission."    

Welcome to the era of the renaissance technology professional, who needs to be equipped with two tiers of skills, providing an ability to look at problems from both technical and people perspectives. The 2020s business demands that, experts across the business technology landscape agree.

Technology skills requirements haven't gone away, but the focus has shifted away from basic coding, integration and systems performance work and now includes delivering business value. Get to know the business, industry observers advise. "It's important to start to learn about finance, business processes, and other strategies that make up how your product or solution comes full-cycle for your organization," says Nag Vaidyanathan, chief technology officer at Duck Creek Technologies. "How you collaborate with other functions is critical to the results you can achieve."    

"My background is in software development, and for much of my career the challenge was figuring out how to make the 1s and 0s work," says Saker. "Today, with technologies like cloud and other digital capabilities, development teams look quite different and there's an increasingly empowered user base. User experience and design has become even more important than in the past." 

To advance in the 2020s, "it's important for IT professionals to stay true to who we are as creative problem solvers," says Vaidyanathan. "We are used to learning new things, trying new things, and failing at new things. We're also very familiar with collaborating and iterating to be always improving and always making a better solution."

That consists of a focus on "skills which generate revenue and growth for an organization," says David Moody, senior associate of Schellman. "These are not the fad skills of the latest popular app or technology, but rather, the fundamental skills which create those apps and technologies."

This means reimagining the roles and composition of technology teams within enterprises. "Some of my top performers are music and art graduates," Saker points out. "It's exciting to see different backgrounds coming together to better serve customers."  

Increasing AI and automation means there is a need to "understand the key roles and values of humans in running an increasingly automated business," Moody states. Otherwise, businesses "will find themselves in a tail-wagging-the-dog situation where the machines are driving the business model, leaving the business in an exposed position when the environment changes. We have already seen vivid examples of this with some of the supply chain disruptions in recent years, where intelligent just-in-time technologies did not cope well with the unanticipated consequences of a pandemic, which was exacerbated by missing key personnel who understood how to adjust and correct for sea changes."

Significantly, because technology is moving so fast, professionals and managers need to hone their "problem-solving skills versus language-specific skills," Saker advises. "IT professionals should focus on learning, disrupting the status quo, and continuing to gain skills across different domains that interest them. This type of professional, with an innate curiosity and an aptitude to grow as a leader and influencer, is the one that will be able to face tomorrow's toughest challenges head-on." 

All technology professionals should have deep analytic skills to support their business skills as well. "There is a tremendous shortage of people with solid mathematical skills, often understated as a valuable skill in IT," says Moody. "Besides being the cornerstone of programming algorithms; skills and practice with mathematics promotes strong analytical thinking in architectural design, problem solving, testing, and performance benchmarking.  Security and risk analysis benefit greatly from solid mathematical analysis.  Such skills provide a tremendous general toolset to the IT professional which will separate them from the rest of the IT crowd." 

Analysis is a powerful area of opportunity for tech professionals, Vaidyanathan agrees. "Each and every day, more data is flooding into the enterprise, creating a number of opportunities to do more with data analysis, building new machine learning and AI modelling capabilities, and creating new actions and workflows that use data creatively to drive action. Previously, value was found largely in writing code to make something work -- but that expectation is changing very fast."

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