IT careers: 10 critical skills to master in 2021

Looking to make the right investments in your IT career? We asked IT leaders and career experts to share the tech and core skills most likely to be in high demand in 2021
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IT Careers 2021

The technology industry seems to be in constant flux, but this year the pace of change has been significantly faster and has followed a trajectory no one saw coming at the beginning of the year. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to not get too attached to our plans for the future.

It’s always wise for IT pros to keep learning and advancing their skills, but how do you make the right investments in your career when you don’t know what the future holds? We asked IT leaders and career experts to share the skills that are most likely to be in high demand in 2021. Development in these areas is a smart bet for IT career advancement in the year ahead.

[ Want more advice? Read also: How to get a job during COVID-19: 9 smart tips. ]

1. Core leadership skills

“The key to adaptability, virtual collaboration, and digital transformation (and agile) is distributed leadership and self-managed teams. This requires that everyone have core leadership skills, and not just people in the positions of managers and above. For the past 11 years, I’ve been training and coaching IT professionals at every job level – from individual contributors up to CIOs – in what I believe are the six key core leadership skills that every IT professional needs to master, even more so today than at any time in the past. These are:

  1. Clarifying your strategic intent, so that you know what’s most important.
  2. Prioritizing your time and energy, so that you get those most important things done.
  3. Delegating work to others, so that you expand the capacity and capabilities of your team.
  4. Creating conditions of accountability, so that all that delegated work gets done as expected.
  5. Managing performance as a continuous improvement process, so that there are no difficult conversations.
  6. Communicating effectively and efficiently, so that all stakeholders and fully engaged and aligned.” - Bob Kantor, founder of Kantor Consulting Group

[ Will your organization thrive in 2021? Learn the four priorities top CIOs are focusing on now. Download the HBR Analytic Services report: IT Leadership in the Next Normal. ]

2. AI and machine learning

“The tech industry is currently operating at an accelerated speed where IT professionals are encouraged to adapt and tackle complex system operations creatively. Specializing in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning can be a great way to secure your career within the industry. AI is reshaping the world, and it is an essential step for tech professionals to keep acquiring technical and analytical skills to remain relevant, providing a unique perspective in solving real-life problems.” - Fahim Sheikh, owner, Trellis

[ Read also: IT careers: How to get a job as an Artificial Intelligence (AI) developer. ]

3. Video conferencing

“The ability to interact naturally with a camera is a skill few possess, but it’s one of those little things that has become highly important in 2020. Since so much work is now being handled remotely, your ability to interact on camera in a professional manner during an interview is of greater importance than most people ever imagined. You need to know how to create a pleasing backdrop and setup adequate lighting so that you look healthy and professional. Then, frame yourself correctly at eye level and look directly into the camera lens when you speak. These kinds of self-presentation skills are invaluable during a time when nearly all interviews are handled virtually.” - Andrei Kurtuy, co-founder and CCO, Novoresume

[ Read also: Zoom tips: 7 ways to improve on-screen body language and Zoom tips: 5 ways to make online presentations pop. ]

4. Communication

“The future of every business will be determined by how well they leverage digital technology. As IT professionals, our job is to paint the vision of the future – a faster and better future – predicated on digital transformation. Communicating this vision and inspiring change within our companies is a critical skill set for every IT professional."

"According to a recent global survey conducted by ServiceNow, half of all executives and employees believe that transitioning to the new normal will be even more challenging than the initial shock of COVID-19. IT professionals will be tasked with finding solutions to digital disadvantages that still exist for many businesses when adjusting to this new environment, which further underscores the need for effective communication skills for cross-departmental collaboration."

"Yes, IT professionals need to know the underpinnings of technology and tech trends. But what many fail to realize is how heavily IT leaders rely on effective communication skills to do their jobs successfully. As CIO of ServiceNow, my role demands clear, consistent communication – both within my organization and across other functions – to make sure that everyone is aligned on the right outcomes. Communication is the key to digital transformation and IT professionals need to communicate with employees across departments on what this means for their work.” - Chris Bedi, CIO, ServiceNow

5. Cybersecurity and data science

“Acquiring a new set of skills can show how versatile you are and increase the chances of contributing to significant changes in the world we live in today. At the moment, cybersecurity and data science skills are the most significant and in-demand set of skills needed, especially with more people working remotely. As more people work remotely, protecting that virtual collaboration from attacks will be much needed.” - Rob Stix, CEO, DirectNet

Let's look at five more IT career skills to focus on:

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.