IT Jobs: The Growing Need for Business Skills

Companies have been leaving IT positions open as they search for tech professionals with business knowledge.
Posted September 24, 2008

Lynn Haber

When you get right down to the nuts and bolts of today’s IT job market, technical skills alone aren’t enough. Employers want IT professionals with equal parts business savvy and technology expertise. In short, differentiate yourself by understanding both the business your company is in and the customer it serves.

The days of the IT department silo are gone. IT professionals who bring together the business role and technology role are best suited to be the business problem solvers for the company’s tech division.

“It’s not technology first, business second, anymore,” says Ian Ide, partner and general manager of the New York technology division of Winter, Wyman, a recruitment firm.

As you move up the ranks of IT professionals, there’s more of a requirement to understand the business and be able to interface with business units. As strategic players in the organization, CIOs and CTOs have always had to understand the business. This requirement, however, is trickling down to other IT players, as well.

“If you’re working on e-commerce for Gucci or Amazon, you have to understand how that world works; if you’re building an accounting or other type of internal application you have to be able to interface with the business units to know what to build; if you’re building the company website you need to understand the consumer and the interface…we see the need for business knowledge across the board for IT professionals,” says Ide.

Certain industries, such as financial, healthcare and retail, for example, that have their own jargon and unique business processes are more likely to seek candidates with industry-specific business knowledge.

IT professionals don’t need a MBA degree to get ahead – although it can be a real plus for those who have it – but they must be able to align technology to business goals and customer needs.

Avoiding Outsourcing

The close integration of technology and business knowledge is probably what keeps certain technology jobs from being outsourced. “The roles that we see are those that do require business savvy as a key component,” says Peter Woolford, market manager at Kforce Inc., a professional staffing firm in Boston, Mass.

Finding the IT professional with the right combination of tech skills and business knowledge today isn’t easy. Companies, however, are willing to wait, says Woolford.

“There’s been a trend over of the last couple of years to leave the IT positions open, sometimes for three to six months, in order to find the right person,” he says.

In the best of all worlds, companies like customer service-centric Litle & Co., an independent payment processing company based in Lowell, Mass., would be able to find IT professionals capable of moving seamlessly between the business and IT sides of the business. But today, that individual is a rare find.

So Litle requires that all of its employees attend Litle University to learn about each department in the company and how it serves its customers.

That includes IT personnel. “We train our developers on both the business side and the engineering side,” says Jason Pavona, vice president product management at Litle. “We mandate that our engineers understand our business so they build better code,” he adds.

Using agile software development, engineers at Litle move quickly. “But it means our engineers must have an understanding of our business, our merchants and our customers,” says Pavona. Agile software development, in essence, breaks projects into small parts which results in a fast-paced environment with new releases coming out once a month compared to once a year with more traditional development methodologies.

Getting There

Industry experts agree that business knowledge is best acquired on the job.

The ideal path to developing business savvy is to target the industry you want to work in early on and leverage the experience over time, suggests Ide. “Then volunteer on projects that bring in new technology,” he adds. Building on specific industry experience will ease the transition to another job.

Companies look for IT job candidates with experience in their industry.

It’s not too late to get started. “There’s no question in my mind that this will be on ongoing trend and spread even deeper into the IT department,” says Ide.

Tags: consumer, software, management, IT Jobs/Salary

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