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Tech jobs are changing. Here are the real skills you'll need to get promoted

The old assumptions about tech and tech jobs are going away. Don't get left behind.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor on
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Image: Getty / Maskot

From programming through to digital business expertise and onto management and collaboration capabilties, young IT professionals can hone a range of potential skillsets to help them get to the top. 

But where should you focus your attention if you want to climb the tech career ladder? Five industry experts give us their opinions. 

1. Show your team ethics 

Danny Gonzalez, chief digital and innovation officer at London North Eastern Railway (LNER), says there's no getting away it – if you're doing to do a technical role, you're going to need the hard skills. 

To that end, his organisation is investing time and money into developing people with the skills LNER needs to continue its data-led digital transformation agenda. 

"Take machine learning, for example – we've got several people in our team who are going through various types of machine-learning development courses to get those hard skills," he says.

Also: Data scientist vs data engineer: How demand for these roles is changing

However, Gonzalez is also a great believer that it's the soft skills that help you get the important stuff done, especially as you start to take responsibility for programmes of work.

"You've got to bring people on the journey with you. People have got to feel passionate about what you're trying to achieve," he says.

"People have got to bring the right behaviours to teamworking. We can't get anything done in the company on our own – we rely on almost every other part of the business. If you're not bringing solid soft skills, then you're not really going to get very far at all because everyone comes together to make something happen."

2.  Exploit your know-how

Stephen Booth, CIO at Coventry University, says anyone looking to work in IT will need to be technically proficient, but by far the most important skills are the right attitude and an ability to connect with people.

Booth says that focus on softer skills has become more critical because many of the traditional tasks undertaken by IT professionals are being accounted for by external providers. In-house staff that remain might have to deal with a shift in focus.

"The roles are changing," he says. "Yes, we still have pure coders and infrastructure engineers. But the cloud has led to huge change. What used to be a server engineer is now someone who manages a relationship with a supplier to provide a service." 

That shift in roles and responsibilities means IT professionals who want to succeed must deal with a broad range of people with disparate demands. Booth says the most effective employees use their technical know-how to help the business solve its challenges.

"You've got to understand the tech, so that you can translate the requirements and the need. So, you still need that tech baseline. But more and more, we're looking for people who can engage and who can translate what people want into this thing that they're building."

3. Become an influencer

Bev White, CEO at recruiter Nash Squared, also says soft skills are crucial for professionals looking to climb the career ladder successfully, especially those who want to move into senior management positions. 

"Being able to take people with you, being a good leader, and being able to motivate and encourage people is really key," she says. 

Being a pure technical specialist "isn't going to cut it", adds White, because someone who's steered clear of honing their softer skills won't necessarily see the value of creating a strong culture within teams and the importance of developing a compelling mission for change.

Also: Recruiting tech workers is getting harder. But there's another way to get the right skills

What's more, the increased responsibility for elements of the technology stack by non-IT lines means business communication skills are critical for what remains of the core tech team.

"I think what we're seeing here is that the IT leadership role is becoming much broader," she says. "Senior professionals have to interact with a lot of people that are doing in business roles what might once have been seen as tech jobs. Digital experts come in all guises these days. So, soft skills are key because you've got to be a really good influencer."

4. Develop presentation skills 

Daniel Smith, head of analytics at clothing brand PANGAIA, says IT professionals need an ability to present data and show the business the benefits of digital transformation projects.

"That's where we're seeing skill shortages – and that's in terms of packages as well as communications skills," he says. "Even getting familiar with something like Power BI can help. Once you start using one tool, it helps you get to grips with whatever tools you use." 

Professionals with capabilities to present data should then hone their softer skills, particularly a confident communication style.

Smith gives an example from his work own work. He recently spent time with the internal impact team to try and help them with carbon-reporting requirements. 

Having listened to their demands, Smith was able to define the technical work in a format the business could understand – and he says that's likely to be a big requirement for all IT professionals.

"The best description I could give to them was, 'This is a carbon balance sheet that looks no different to a financial balance sheet but is all about carbon.' And they said, 'Yes, finally, someone has explained it to us.' And so, for me, it's those soft skills. Because drawing that problem out of the business is where it gets painful at times."

5. Adopt the right behaviours

Mark Bramwell, CIO at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, says that despite the general need for technical proficiency, his department always looks for key values from new recruits.

"Technical skills can be taught, but behavioural skills are very difficult to change," he says. "We always look for key things around our values, such as honesty, trust, respect, excellence, collaboration, entrepreneurship. If people can exhibit and demonstrate those skills, they're the sorts of people we would like in our organisation, and that I would like in my team."

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