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Skills For Success at Different Stages of an IT Professional’s Career

The skills and knowledge that earn promotions are not always enough to ensure success in the new position.
  1. Introduction
  2. Key Insights
  3. Expanding IT Skills
  4. Findings from the Field
  5. Limitations of the Study
  6. Implications and Lessons Learned
  7. Conclusion
  8. References
  9. Authors
  10. Figures
  11. Tables
Skills for Success at Different Stages of an IT Professional's Career, illustration

Skilled Information Technology (IT) professionals are scarce and costly. IT managers must not only ensure they hire the right entry-level capabilities and skills but also understand how to acquire, nurture, retain, and develop an evolving and diverse set of employee skills throughout the IT hierarchy. They must also ensure they develop their own skills to achieve the career progression they desire.14 Much has been written about the skills needed for success in the IT field. The appropriate set of skills for entry-level new hires is of great interest to scholars, as well as to employers.1,2,4,7,15,24,25 However, less attention has gone toward identifying skills required for the success of mid-level IT managers and CIOs beyond calls for excellent communication skills, strong business acumen, and strategic thinking.69 Although these qualities are important, a more comprehensive set of skills is increasingly important, as organizations grapple with the costs of hiring, training, retention, and turnover.5,7,12,13,1820

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Key Insights

  • The key to progression in an IT management career is to hone one’s technical and functional-area skills early.
  • IT professionals must build their people and decision-making skills as they progress.
  • Communication skills are critical throughout an IT professional’s career.

Though many studies have considered IT skills, most focus on specific technical skills (such as programming languages, hardware, and systems analysis) and are framed from the perspective of employers, IT degree programs, or recent IT graduates,18,23 focusing primarily on skills for new hires.1,2 Limited research has informed our understanding of the skills needed for an IT professional who wants to progress up the ranks of an organization. There is also little or no information on the expectations of senior and mid-level IT managers with regard to their own skills or of those above and below them in their chains of command. Research has found, however, that understanding what abilities are needed to progress successfully in one’s career is critical to motivating IT employees.10,22 Management and leadership skills gain increasing importance as one moves up the IT hierarchy. However, achieving the right balance of technical and managerial skills is difficult, and many organizations fail to provide employees adequate guidance toward achieving this critical skill mix.3,10,11,16,22

To address these shortcomings, the Society for Information Management (SIM) annual IT Trends Study included a number of questions in its 2014 membership questionnaire to provide a snapshot of the relative importance of a broad set of skills across three levels, or stages, of IT careers: CIO or senior-most IT manager, mid-level IT professional, and newly hired IT employee. In particular, it captured the perspectives of CIOs and mid-level IT managers regarding what skills are most important for success at each of the stages. This research continues to provide insight into the skills IT professionals require to not only succeed in their current positions but move into higher levels of responsibility, and succeed there, too.

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Expanding IT Skills

The task of identifying the skills needed by IT employees as they rise through the ranks of an organization is difficult because these skills are evolving continuously and can be job- or organization-specific.8,15 The balance among technical, managerial, leadership, and business skills shifts in response to changing business and technology conditions.3 In the 1960s and 1970s, driven by the predominance of mainframe computers and long system development cycles, technical skills were the most valued, followed closely by managerial skills.4,16 In the 1980s and 1990s, the widespread use of personal computers and local-area networks triggered a shift to a more strategic focus.21 However, IT was still viewed primarily as a support activity responsible for managing the infrastructure needed for the functional groups within the organization.3,11,15 This brought greater need for broader technical skills, along with greater awareness of business and technology changes, as well as greater strategic focus. In the 2000s, the emergence of social networking, mobile computing, and e-commerce made it even more important for IT managers to address organization issues.12,17,25 Interpersonal, technical, and organizational skills have long been important for the success of IT professionals at all stages of their careers, but the relative mix of skills at each stage is not always clear or straightforward.5,79,15,16,25 For example, although nontechnical skills are often viewed as more important for senior-management career success, technical skills are still highly valued, particularly in organizations that offer dual career ladders, allowing employees to pursue either technical or managerial career paths.10,16,24

Understanding this evolution of skill requirements is important for several reasons. First, as IT organizations become more strategic, understanding issues related to recruiting, developing, and retaining skilled IT employees becomes even more important.5,8,13,15,21 Second, because IT has become more strategic and business-focused in most organizations, the skills needed at all levels of IT personnel have evolved and expanded. A good understanding of the skills needed at each career stage is thus important. IT employees must continue to acquire the technical skills needed to address advancements in technology but also acquire the business, management, and leadership skills necessary to move up.

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Findings from the Field

We collected the data for this study as part of the larger SIM IT Trends Study.12,13,17 We developed a questionnaire through a review of the literature, previous SIM Trends studies, and a multi-round Delphi method.9,12,13,17,23,25 The Delphi panel, a characteristic of these SIM studies since their inception in the late 1970s, consisted of academic researchers and SIM-member IT practitioners. After each Delphi review, including pilot testing, the questionnaire was modified. The final online questionnaire was distributed by emailing a personal link to 4,612 SIM members in the spring of 2014. A total of 1,002 completed the questionnaire, a 21.4% response rate.

We received responses from 312 CIOs, 384 mid-level IT managers, and 306 practitioners who either did not answer the skills questions or self-identified as “others,” or consultants, vendors, academics, retired, or in transition. “CIO” represented the highest-ranking IT person in an organization, regardless of title. The term “mid-level IT manager/professional” was used for respondents in IT management positions below CIO. Everyone in the sample was an IT manager since SIM is a professional society for IT managers. Table 1 reports the distribution of the respondents’ tenure. For distribution by organizational revenue, see Figure 1, and by industry type, see Figure 2.

Participants were presented with a list of 36 skills and asked to identify the three most important for the success of new IT hires, mid-level IT managers, and themselves in their current positions. Table 2 reports the top 10 rankings and percentage of CIOs selecting each success skill for each career stage.

“Providing leadership” was selected by 34.3% of CIOs as one of the top three skills for success in their jobs and was highest ranked. Not surprisingly, the next most selected CIO skills were directly related to leadership and big-picture thinking: “people management,” “strategic planning,” and “decision making.” Two of the skills CIOs perceived as most important to their jobs were also skills they perceived as highly important to both mid-level IT managers and new IT hires: “oral communication” and “collaboration.”

CIOs indicated that many of the most important skills for mid-level IT professional success are also important for new IT hires; for example, “problem solving,” “technical knowledge,” and “functional area knowledge” were all top picks by CIOs for these levels, albeit with different rankings and selection frequencies. This suggests CIOs perceive the critical skills for new hires must be honed for them to move up the ranks. Surprisingly, managerial skills like “decision making,” “providing leadership,” and “planning” were not among those most frequently chosen by responding CIOs as critical for success at mid-level.

Mid-level IT managers also largely perceived the skills that are most critical to their own job success to be similar to the ones most important for the success of new IT hires, as in Table 3. However, they chose “collaboration with others,” “technical knowledge,” “problem solving,” “oral communication,” and “people management” less frequently for themselves than for new hires. Consistent with CIOs, they did not see leadership skills as particularly important for mid-level career success. A picture thus emerged of mid-level IT managers as having greater management responsibilities but not leadership responsibilities.

Table 4 reports the perceptions of mid-level IT managers who were either one, two, or three or more levels away from their CIOs. Perceptions of mid-level IT managers about the set of skills necessary for their job success were fairly consistent, regardless of their position within the mid-management ranks; however, the relative importance of each skill in terms of rank and percent selecting a skill were often quite different. All three levels indicated “collaboration with others,” “functional area knowledge,” “technical knowledge,” and “problem solving” as the top-ranked skills. Managers who reported being closer to their CIOs seemed to attach a higher relative importance, as indicated by the higher percentage of respondents selecting an item, to “functional area knowledge” and “problem solving” than those at lower levels. Furthermore, one-level-away managers perceived “emotional intelligence” as one of the more important skills for their success, whereas managers three or more levels away perceived it as much less important. Conversely, the former attached less importance to both oral and written “communication” skills than those at lower levels. Lower-level managers reported “decision making” was a top skill, whereas far fewer of the higher-level managers rated it of critical importance to their personal success. Managers at a level farthest from their CIOs did not perceive “people management” as being as critical as the two higher levels did.

Figure 3 outlines the most important personal success skills at different reporting distances from the CIO, using the same data as Table 4 but including only those skills selected by at least 15% of the respondents. The eight skills in Figure 3 are also in the top six of at least one level in Table 4. Note how the relative importance of “emotional intelligence,” “problem solving,” and “functional area knowledge” increases as one moves up the IT hierarchy, while the importance of “oral communications” and “decision making” decreases.

It appears that as IT managers move up the career ladder and occupy positions closer to their CIOs, the set of skills they perceive as critical to their personal success remains fairly stable, even as the relative importance of individual skills can shift significantly. One possible explanation for this apparent contradiction is that as IT professionals gain more experience with a skill, they become less concerned about it, even though at each career stage, they are more focused on acquiring the skills they may not have needed in their prior positions (such as “functional area knowledge,” “problem solving,” and “emotional intelligence”). For example, “functional area knowledge,” as selected by 27.7% of the respondents one level from the CIO, was their second most selected success skill, whereas lower-level managers did not rank it nearly as high. Third-ranked “problem solving” exhibited similar differences between those one level removed and the others. Higher-level IT managers may be more accountable to the business and thus must understand it better and more effectively solve its problems.

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Limitations of the Study

One limitation is the data was self-reports of respondents’ personal perceptions. Data could thus have been affected by respondents’ experience and bias, including the industries and organization cultures they served. Respondents reported what they believe contributed to their success, but we have no independent evidence that these skills are the reason for that success. The generalizability of these findings may be limited because all respondents were members of one professional association, SIM. Because SIM is an organization for IT professionals who have chosen a managerial career path, rather than a technical career path, findings might not be entirely applicable to those on a more technical track. On the other hand, a plus for generalizability is the significant degree of variation in the organization size and industries represented in the sample. However, since smaller organizations tend to have flatter hierarchies, size-related effects could be an issue for the mid-level perceptions in Table 3, Table 4, and Figure 3. Moreover, because we gathered only frequencies of responses, it was difficult to know with confidence the relative importance among the skills respondents selected; for example, if 20% of the respondents chose skill X and 10% chose skill Z, this does not necessarily mean skill X is twice as important as skill Z.

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Implications and Lessons Learned

A picture emerges of the variety of skills IT managers deem necessary for success at various stages of an IT career, providing a broader, more dynamic view of skills for IT career success than the typical in-depth look at specific skills required for a given career stage or the skill shortages at a particular moment in time. The study also helps improve our understanding of the progression of skills needed as an IT professional’s career advances from individual performer to manager of individual performers to leader.

This progression is reflected in Figure 4, illustrating the evolution of IT professional skill requirements as a career progresses and using the top five success skills most frequently selected by CIOs across the three career stages in Table 2. Figure 4 depicts how CIOs’ perceptions of essential skills change for those IT professionals at different career stages. For example, “technical knowledge,” “problem solving,” and “collaboration” were the top skills for new IT hires yet were relatively less important for mid-level managers even though still highly ranked and significantly less important for CIOs, while “people management,” “strategic planning,” and “decision making” were of little importance to the success of new hires, somewhat important for mid-level managers, but were among the most important skills reported by respondents for CIO success. There is thus advance and decline in the relative importance of various skills as an IT professional’s career progresses. However, Figure 4 also makes clear that throughout one’s entire career, “collaboration” and “oral communications” skills remain important.

These findings, and recognition of the different skills needed at different career stages, represent an important contribution to our understanding of IT skills and careers; they also have implications for organizations, as well as individuals. On the one hand, such understanding can help organizations improve their IT hiring practices and invest in designing and implementing appropriate training, education, retention, and career-advancement programs. On the other, they provide a framework whereby IT employees can develop and advance their own careers, acquiring the skills needed for success in their current positions and prepare for their next career stage.

In the first stage, new hires are expected to have the technical knowledge and problem-solving skills needed to perform the job. These skills would come from their college preparation in computer science or information systems, technical certifications (such as Cisco and Microsoft), or previous employment, internships, and work-study programs. At this stage, IT employees function as individual performers or members of a team. They also begin to gain the functional knowledge and business understanding needed to be a more effective performer.

At mid-level, IT professionals leverage their technical experience to be managers of individual performers, heading teams, IT projects, or programs. Here “decision making,” “business knowledge,” and “people management” skills become more important than they were previously. Obtaining an MBA or a master’s degree in IS, or participating in personal- or management-development programs can be valuable career enhancers at this stage, enabling opportunities for greater management responsibilities.

Upon achieving executive leadership responsibilities, as in, say, a promotion to CIO, “providing leadership,” along with “strategic planning” and “decision making,” become key ingredients for success. It is here that knowledge of the business must be linked to knowledge of the business’s customers, suppliers, and indeed the industry itself. Here, senior management and executive leadership programs (such as at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and SIM’s Regional Leadership Forum) can help provide this broader perspective.

All this highlights the importance of continuous, lifelong learning to the success of IT professionals. In addition to the formal academic programs discussed here, mentoring by a more senior manager in the organization (but not necessarily one’s boss) can be very helpful toward career advancement. If not formally provided by an employer, individuals should seek out such mentors informally through professional associations like ACM and personal networks. Similarly, external career coaches can be helpful, particularly at critical decision points in one’s career.

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This research study, which was based on SIM member data, provides insights into the diverse and dynamic nature of skill requirements at different stages of an IT career and levels of responsibility from the perspective of most senior and mid-level IT managers. Organizations can use them to enhance their IT workforce practices and IT professionals to achieve their personal career objectives and help others do so, too.

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F1 Figure 1. Annual revenue of respondents’ organizations ($U.S.).

F2 Figure 2. Industries represented by respondents.

F3 Figure 3. Perception of top skills for mid-level IT managers by level of manager.

F4 Figure 4. CIO perceptions of the top five skills across three levels of IT careers.

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T1 Table 1. Respondents’ work tenures.

T2 Table 2. CIO perceptions of essential success skills at three stages of an IT career (n = 312).

T3 Table 3. Mid-level IT manager perceptions of skills* (non-CIOs; n = 384).*

T4 Table 4. Mid-level IS manager perceptions of own skills* by management level.**

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