Grafters with a hint of genius: What makes a really great IT pro?

What are the skills that tech chiefs are searching for in the next generation of IT execs?

How important is innovation for executives, really? Image: iStock

Attitude or aptitude - which skill is more important for CIOs who are looking to generate a successful IT team? In a time of fast-changing business priorities, which skill areas should CIOs focus on as they attempt to find the kinds of people who will make a difference, both now and in the future? ZDNet asks the experts.

1. Transformative IT leaders focus on engagement and alignment

"Stereotypes are quite destructive things, aren't they?" says Richard Corbridge, CIO for the Health Service Executive in Ireland. He suggests a TV sitcom like The IT Crowd would have you believe that the most important skill for an IT professional is an ability to treat users with complete disdain, not to mention to be a socially awkward misfit.

Corbridge believes such perceptions jar when set against the reality of the modern IT department. He suggests senior technology professionals must engage. "For me the most important part of the CIO role is the skill of leadership, swiftly followed by communication," says Corbridge.

"A modern IT leader is part of the executive of an organisation. He or she needs to be part of the team because they bring leadership attributes, and not there simply because they are seen as the IT 'geek'. The days should be long gone when where the CIO is sat at a leadership meeting to ensure that the PowerPoint slides work."

Corbridge adds: "Innovation is just as much about belief in leadership to achieve goals as it is about technology delivery."

Corbridge then points to another sometimes overlooked attribute in successful tech chiefs. "Technology professionals need to spot the solution to the problem and align it to how the organisation delivers," he says. "The development of that skill comes from leading a technology organisation away from being separate to the business and towards being part of the business itself."

Above everything, however, the most important skill for the technology leader is a realisation that your role is likely to be centred on business transformation rather than technology. "Enthusiasm for big data or the Internet of Things will simply not deliver change," says Corbridge.

2. Great technology workers are grafters with a touch of genius

Alastair Behenna, an experienced IT leader and consultant at The CIO Partnership, says the right attitude is the crucial component for any technology professional. "Attitude will enhance and amplify aptitude, although both tend to overlap to a greater or lesser degree in any individual," he says.

Behenna says IT staffers are, on the whole, capable employees and will already display an accomplished level of aptitude. Yet even some of the best professionals might retain remnants of the old entrenched ways of thinking that gave IT a bad name in some organisations.

"Technical skills can be learned but attitude is an innate personal philosophy that drives enthusiasm, customer focus, problem solving and elements like team work, quality and innovative thinking," says Behenna. "The digital revolution - for want of a less hackneyed and overtraded phrase - depends, for its success, on the spark that begins with attitude then commingles with aptitude to deliver game-changing thinking, products and services."

He says any human capital plan that seeks to deliver the future of information technology is going to need high achievers. Those individuals do not necessarily have to be academics or people with certifications, but they do need to have delivered demonstrably on their objectives.

"You need people who are delighted to work for an organisation that has strived to create an environment that links individual ambition to the company's success," says Behenna. "No hyperbole, just grafters with a hint of genius. That's what I would want from IT professionals."

3. Top candidates have a track record and can adapt to new skills quickly

Jim Anning, who is head of data and analytics at British Gas Connected Homes, is another executive who is striving to get the most capable candidates for his specialist unit that has been set up to investigate the use of big data and smart technology.

"The Internet of Things is an extremely fast moving area," says Anning. "To give our products the competitive edge, we need to innovate at the same time as delivering robust services. That means learning quickly and continuously evolving. The key thing I look for in people is an entrepreneurial attitude, the capacity to imagine a better way of operating and the ability to deliver it."

He says that, when his organisation was looking to implement key technologies, it made a conscious choice to adopt the open source database system Cassandra and the data processing engine Spark. "You just can't find people in the market with decades of experience in this space - so you have to find people who have a track record in a related field, but who can adapt quickly," says Anning.

Connected Homes built a data and algorithm pipeline recently that will provide 3.8 million British Gas customers with a new service. Anning's team completed the project in about six weeks. "To work at that speed, our people need to learn from previous mistakes, re-use components from previous products and find ways of pushing through the issues you inevitably encounter when you are breaking new ground," he says.

"It doesn't seem that long ago that IT people could specialise in one technology area and make an entire career out of it. Given the scale of our ambitions at Connected Homes, that's never going to be the case. We constantly have to find the balance between thinking about the future and delivering in the here and now - and that takes a special breed of IT person."

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