How much do qualifications matter for a job in tech, really?

What CIOs are really looking for in staff and which standards they trust.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Do you need to graduate from university to get ahead in IT?

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The tech world is so fast-moving that qualifications risk being out of date before there are completed: so what role should industry qualifications and accreditations play in keeping IT workers skills' fresh?

What certifications do CIOs care about and what do they think about the professionalisation of IT?

1. Remember that technical ability is only one part of the puzzle

Camden Council interim CIO Omid Shiraji says it is baffling IT does not have professional status like other similar disciplines, such as accountancy and law. All, however, is not lost -- and he points to accreditation schemes, such as the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

First published in 2003, and updated regularly, SFIA has become a globally accepted standard for skills and competencies in the digital world. As a CIO, Shiraji insists that recruitment companies only provide candidates that have been assessed against SFIA standards. He advises other IT leaders to promote the importance of technology and soft skills training.

"Technical skills are obviously important, but are only a small part of the recruitment picture," says Shiraji. "Mindset, attitude, and emotional intelligence are the most important attributes I look for in any recruitment. You can teach people technical skills, but empathy and understanding tend to be innate and are essential to building successful teams."

In an attempt to increase his professional skills base, Shiraji completed a masters in information leadership at City University, London. He says he benefited from the broad approach of the course, which provided both academic theory and practical experience.

"There's nothing like that course in the marketplace now," he says. "There are lots of courses on digital leadership but there is nothing specific that focuses on the individual elements required to be a successful CIO, from your responsibilities in society to the finer details of corporate finance."

2. Focus on standards to help you to develop and shine

Poli Avramidis is CIO at the Bar Council, which is the professional association for barristers in England and Wales. Prior to joining the organisation in 2014, Avramidis was CIO for the British Medical Association, the professional body for doctors in the UK, and while technology might not have the chartered status of other occupations, Avramidis says the career is professional in all but name.

"It's definitely a profession -- and a very important one," he says. "CIOs have to help the younger generation to shape their own futures."

Avramidis says representative organisations like the BCS must play a key role. He says there remains an opportunity to apply strict rules around the IT profession, just as there are for doctors and lawyers. Yet there are challenges.

"There aren't necessarily the same standards in IT as there are in those other professions," says Avramidis. "For everything you want to help the business achieve through technology, there are often hundreds of potential routes, drawing on both bespoke developers and external experts. Everything moves so quickly in the IT industry."

Despite the inherent nature of change in the IT sector, Avramidis says it is crucial the industry looks to create core standards around competencies and aptitudes. Courses and certification can help. Like Shiraji, Avramidis points to the Skills Framework for the Information Age, which he says provides important learning and development frameworks for technologists.

3. Prove your abilities on the job to take a direct route to the top

Brad Dowden, CIO at recruitment specialist Airswift, says experience is the best way to become a top IT professional. He quit university after a year because of the slow pace of learning and, instead, went to college and completed a one-year course on up-to-date IT methods.

"The industry was changing so quickly that I just wanted to be at the coalface as quickly as possible," he says. "I started as a desktop engineer and I helped build computers. I'm not the kind of person that likes studying -- I like to see action and results. But I understand what technology can do, I know how to get the right people and I know how to manage those people in order to get the results."

Dowden's abilities allowed him to work his way to the top of the IT career leader. He says the industry could become more professionalised in the future, but inherent change in the technology sector makes it difficult to create agreed standards in qualifications. In the end, Dowden believes an IT professional will always be judged by his or her ability to delver great results.

"Compared to other established professions, like law and accountancy, IT is very much in its infancy," he says. "You don't need formal qualifications -- it's all about proving you know what you're doing. And when you start delivering results, you start gaining access to the more senior positions."

4. Develop a sixth sense for how IT changes business for the better

Andrew Marks, former CIO and now the UK and Ireland managing director for energy in Accenture Technology Strategy, says there are a small number of tick-boxes that give an IT worker credibility for a future CIO role. Three areas that are consistently recognised are experience in the transformation of IT operations, knowledge of how IT is used to innovate and boost business efficiency, and awareness of how a digital mindset can drive value.

The good news is that no IT worker should be expected to bring deep experience in all required areas at the same time. Having the right strength in one or two areas should be sufficient to gain acceptance by a key business executive on the one hand, or influence an IT team member on the other.

"With the pace of change today, the ever-evolving IT professional must keep abreast of emerging technologies. Whether new tools are immediately relevant or not, next-generation IT leaders must recognise that the working environment will also continue to change," says Marks.

"Finding the value at the intersection between changing business need and emerging technology is the secret sauce that drives true innovation. Having a nose for that will quickly help IT workers to create a platform for success."

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