IT careers 2021: 7 hot technology and core skills

What are the technology and core skills IT professionals should focus on now to advance their careers? Recruiters and tech execs speak
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IT Careers 2021 hot jobs

Given the perpetual churn of technology, it’s critical for IT pros to keep their capabilities and skills current. That’s especially true this year, as organizations lean heavily on IT as they transform the business amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“While historically IT was focused on cost and stability, today business value is derived from agility, customer-centricity, and velocity,” says Keith Sims, president of Integrity Resource Management and a member of executive recruiting network Sanford Rose Associates. IT leaders in 2021 are aligning their digital goals and operational activities with the strategy and vision of their CEOs.

“IT is helping get products and product bundles to market faster, creating and tracking successful pricing models, taking data the company has been sitting on and turning it into new revenue streams, and utilizing collaboration tools to become co-innovators with their customers, actually developing products their customers already want to buy,” Sims says.

In the year ahead, attention will also turn to the post-pandemic future. “It seems that many companies will pivot from a focused COVID-19 response to their long-term product roadmaps, particularly with regard to apps and services,” says Art Zeile, CEO of DHI Group, the parent company of technology jobs website Dice. Thus, project management, software development and engineering, and data-related proficiencies will be paramount.

[ Can you ask for a raise during a pandemic? Yes, read: How to ask for a raise during COVID-19. ]

7 IT career skills that matter now

IT professionals who want to remain relevant will seek to strengthen both their current and emerging tech know-how while continuing to build so-called soft skills to enable them and their teams to navigate an uncertain road ahead.

Let’s examine some of the more valuable skills and capabilities for the tech function in 2021:

1. Database and data pipeline automation expertise

The continued evolution toward data-driven operations will create a surge in demand for database-related skills, says Nisha Krishan, senior analyst at management consultancy and research firm Everest Group, whether that’s experience with Amazon S3 or SAP or SAP HANA.

SQL (structured query language) is a much-requested skill on Dice – the most sought after in remote technologist job listings in November 2020. “Whatever the state of the world or economic environment, companies need technologists who can understand and manage databases,” says Zeile.

“Companies continue to have a pressing need for skilled data analysts and data scientists who can successfully glean insights from these databases,” says Zeile. “Those insights, in turn, are exactly what executives need to make crucial decisions in uncertain times.”

To use those skilled professionals, who are in short supply, most effectively, IT organizations can begin to automate their data pipeline. “Data scientists are too often busy with tasks like data preparation, feature engineering, and modeling,” says Dr. Justin Silver, an AI Strategist at digital commerce systems maker PROS. “As these tasks become augmented with tools that help automate these steps, we’ll see data scientists trade routine tasks for time spent on deeper, strategic approaches that will make them invaluable resources. IT functions with the skills to implement business AI solutions can turn ad-hoc analytics into something more systematic and repeatable.”

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

2. DevOps dexterity

DevOps skills will continue to be in great demand across IT – from code automation engineering to full stack development to operations roles. All are “highly relevant in a cloud-native environment,” says Ola Chowning, partner at technology research and advisory firm ISG.

There is no shortage of opportunities to acquire DevOps skills: Cloud Academy offers fundamentals and training in DevOps-related tools and The DevOps Institute offers certification in several DevOps disciplines; LinkedIn Learning and Udacity offer a variety of DevOps courses. “However,” Chowning points out, “many programs are tools-oriented and certification requires a level of real-world experience in many cases.”

As Eveline Oehrlich, chief research director of DevOps Institute, recently shared, their most recent research of DevOps hiring managers indicates that process skills and knowledge is the top must-have skill category, while CI/CD toolchain is the top must-have technical skill. For more stats and advice on DevOps skills, read her full article: DevOps careers: 35 key hiring stats from 2020.

[ Want DevOps best practices? Watch the on-demand webinar: Lessons from The Phoenix project you can use today. ]

3. Popular programming languages

According to Dice’s most recent analysis of nationwide job postings, top skills include software development, especially Java, Python, JavaScript, as well as software engineering in general. “In order to execute roadmaps and build software, there will be an increased demand for technologists with mastery of the most popular programming languages,” says Zeile. Dice partnered with Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, to assemble a list of the top 29 skills and languages (along with projected growth rates over the next two years) for software pros.

According to the recently released 2020 Open Source Jobs Report, conducted by The Linux Foundation and edX, 74 percent of hiring managers want Linux experience, For more stats and advice, see Open source IT jobs by the numbers: 13 statistics

[ Read also: IT careers: How to job hunt during a pandemic. ]

4. AI and MLOps skills

AI and machine learning (ML) only begin to produce business value when they are integrated into the business. But many organizations have been struggling to monetize their AI investments, says Dr. Ryohei Fujimaki, founder and CEO of dotData, a maker of automated machine learning software. One path to getting intelligent capabilities out of the lab and into enterprise use may be MLOps.

Think of MLOps as DevOps for machine learning; it can bridge the gap between data science and operations. While not a panacea for what has ailed AI adoption to date, MLOps can help to automate some of the workflow – namely data and feature engineering. “Businesses will be able to start moving away from long, time-consuming waterfall approaches to AI development and begin to adopt more agile processes that rely on speed of execution and rapid feedback,” Fujimaki says.

You may be able to transition into an AI developer role from another full-stack developer position. Be ready to show your experience with Java, Python, and R, plus cloud tools, and demonstrate your abilities in problem-solving (both autonomously and as part of a team), logic, and collaboration. For more tips, read  IT careers: How to get a job as an Artificial Intelligence (AI) developer.

5. Governance, risk and compliance skills

Businesses will be overwhelmed by compliance needs as privacy regulations increase in the new year, according to Buno Pati, CEO of enterprise data operations and orchestration system maker Infoworks. Governance, risk and compliance (GRC), process skills increased by 4 percent as must-have skills, according to the DevOps Institute’s Upskilling Report for 2020.

“In 2021, we’ll also see businesses prioritize consumer control of consumer data as governments and regulators drive new privacy legislation,” Pati says. California passed the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) in November. A number of countries are exploring their own versions of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). “This just the latest example of the rapidly changing regulatory environment across the world,” Pati says. “While each of these regulations is localized, the impact is global. Over the next year, we’ll see businesses challenged with establishing a framework for compliance.”

Ricardo “Rick” Madan, vice president of products and services at IT services provider TEKsystems, says those organizations who have the skills necessary to embed personal data management in their architecture will be one step ahead.

6. Cloud and container-related skills

“[COVID-19] forced businesses to migrate to the cloud faster and change entire business models virtually overnight,” says Pati. As an increasing number of organizations adopt a  hybrid cloud model, containerization has quickly climbed the agenda. Thus experience with container orchestration tools like  Kubernetes becomes valuable.

Demand for container skills will be high, says Krishan, driven by the need to adopt agility, flexibility, and scalability in operations. The 2020 Open Source Jobs Report found that 69 percent of respondents were seeking cloud and container experience, up from 64 percent the previous year. The report noted “a shift of priorities for hiring organizations towards cloud-native technologies and increasing use of open source solutions despite the severe challenges currently facing businesses and IT pros.” Robert Half Technology’s Salary Guide 2021 also listed cloud (AWS, Azure, Google) and containerization as their top IT skills and expertise in demand this year.

7. Emotional intelligence (EQ)

EQ will continue to be a prized set of core skills for IT leaders, says ISG’s Chowning. “The shift of many organizations to smaller, cross-functional teams often means a more collaborative, human-centered environment that requires understanding and reasoning rather than purely science-based perspectives to be successful,” Chowning notes. Many organizations now include EQ skills observations in their interview techniques and hiring process, according to Chowning.

How do your EQ skills stack up? Read also 10 essential soft skills for the remote work era and IT careers: 5 essential soft skills to strengthen.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.