The best IT skill for the 2020s? Become an 'evergreen' learner

Tech professionals have limited time outside of their jobs to learn new skills. So experts recommend a broader approach to skills development.

In terms of career opportunities for today's technology professionals, an abundance of skills are in demand across a wide range of platforms, languages, and methodologies. But technology managers and professionals have limited time outside of their regular jobs, gigs, or educational programs. It's a question of where to invest time and resources. 

To get a picture of what skills will matter in the 2020s, I canvassed industry to get their takes on what is needed. 

For starters, the "soft" skills will matter in the months and years ahead. These include professional skills such as communication, leadership, and teamwork, says Don Jones, vice president of developer skills at Pluralsight. Then there is a need for "tech-adjacent skills, like a familiarity with project management and business analysis." 

Jones urges an "evergreen" approach to skills mastery, as technology evolves too quickly to commit to a single platform or solution set. "The biggest-impact skill is the ability to learn," he says. "There's no single tech skill you can invest in that won't change or be outdated in a year; your single biggest skill needs to be the ability to update skills and learn new skills." 

This also means placing a greater emphasis on emotional intelligence, as many emerging systems will be built on artificial intelligence, analytics, or automation that mimic human processes, therefore augmenting human workers. 

"Anyone can be taught to swap out memory, but the skill of communication and responding to human emotion is not a skill so easily taught," says Chris Lepotakis, senior associate at Schellman. "While many IT professionals get into the industry for their love and passion of all things technology, most of these skills are pointed towards helping business, which ultimately have the human component."

 "If you can't communicate with your clients and team, you can't solve problems," he adds.

Also: Web Developer or CTO, which tech jobs have the fastest growing salaries?

According to Jones, an evergreen approach to learning means "it doesn't matter what the programming language of the month is, or what security breach you need to deal with, or anything; you'll be able to keep up."

Think in terms of evergreen skills as it relates to the rise of cloud computing. "The value of cloud doesn't lie in its infrastructure alone, but in the notional agility organizations can create if leaders are highly skilled and knowledgeable of all its possibilities," says Will Perry, US cloud innovation and engineering leader at PwC. "Cloud fluency will play an important role in bringing together the greatest aspects of this technology with today's biggest business challenges and opportunities for growth." 

Again, evergreen skills play a role in this great migration. "People moving into a cloud environment cannot just easily transport their previous systems into the cloud, but rather they must be adapted into the cloud," adds Lepotakis. "Service providers and customers alike need to reimagine what their solutions will look like in a cloud environment. We really need people that understand both how a system used to work in the traditional datacenter and how to reimagine it for a cloud solution."  

The Covid crisis -- which pushed digital transformation into warp speed at even the most hidebound companies -- also changed the equation in terms of skills requirements. Businesses needed to run digitally, pressing their IT managers and professionals into roles closer to business strategy and management -- and away from coding and maintenance. 

Also: Low-code and no-code platforms have moved beyond the shiny tools stage

"Covid brought low-code mainstream," says Malcolm Ross, vice president of product strategy and deputy CTO at Appian. "That's because low-code's speed and power is precisely what is needed. It's designed to help IT build and modify enterprise apps at a faster rate. It's also a very human way of interacting with machines."

Low-code doesn't mean IT professionals can avoid coding; it means assuming roles that involve guidance and planning for business users. 

"Low-code helps bridge the gap that has always existed between IT developers and their business counterparts," says Ross. "It presents enormous opportunity to professional developers looking to upskill and to non-developers looking for a career change."  

Jones, however, believes that coding will always be in demand at all levels in IT organizations. "DevOps is all about code," he says. "Coders create the universe. Coders create automation; any area where we can't get enough people is an area where we need coders to automate it instead." 

In other words, an evergreen skill remains an evergreen skill.

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