6 IT skills to focus on in 2021, from Michigan CIO of the Year winners

Which IT skills do CIOs say will be in high demand this year? Think cloud, cybersecurity, and communication, for starters
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Maintaining relevant skills is critical for all IT professionals who want to grow in their careers, and when it comes to what skills are hot, these CIOs know what they need.   

We caught up with CIOs who recently won the 2020 Michigan CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards to find out what skills they believe will be important for IT professionals in the coming year. The awards were presented by the Michigan CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership.

A common theme that emerged is the need for IT talent that understands the technical aspects of cloud services and cybersecurity. Also making their lists are soft skills – or core skills as some are labeling them – such as communication and the desire to always be learning. 

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6 IT skills in high demand

Read on to learn which skills these CIOs believe will be in high demand this year. 

1. Cloud, cybersecurity, and design thinking

Leadership Michigan CIO of the Year 

Melanie Kalmar, Corporate VP, CIO & CDO, Dow: "Many companies are moving to a cloud first strategy. As cloud evolves and becomes central to IT architectures, having workforce skills specifically to support this strategy will be critical for IT organizations. Today’s IT talent must be future focused on modern software engineering, able to leverage APIs, and have the skills to mitigate technical debt by migrating applications to the cloud and reducing on-prem infrastructure.

Another high demand area – further accentuated by the growth of digital during COVID-19 – is cybersecurity skills. With growing sophistication in attacks both external and internal, cyber teams are needed to mitigate threats 24X7. This requires having the tools and expertise to identify and manage attempted attacks and make the necessary solution design decisions to manage risk – while still delivering solutions that are easy to use. In addition, it’s critical to educate the broader organization on the potential threats and what to be on the lookout for. 

Beyond technical skills, design thinking skills are increasingly important for creating and building solutions and services with an outside-in or user focus. Using design thinking or human-centered design techniques allows teams to identify the true problems to be solved and focus on critical user needs and experiences to deliver better products, services, and internal processes. Each of these areas will need more IT talent in the years ahead, and could provide a great growth opportunity for those looking to advance in their IT careers.”

2. Be analytical and data driven  

Super Global Michigan CIO of the Year  

Mamatha Chamarthi, CIO – North America and Asia Pacific, Stellantis: “As the automotive industry gets disrupted by the convergence of autonomy, connectivity, electrification and shared mobility, it is critical for our company to stay competitive and seek to be among the disruptors. The key to disruption is listening to our customers and moving away from being a product-centric full-line automotive company and toward a customer-centric mobility provider. We need to leverage data to better understand the customer lifecycle – from pre-sale, sale, and service – in order to provide captivating experiences with our vehicles. IT talent should focus on being analytical, driving the business toward data-driven customer experiences. 

We must really think about what kind of talent we have and are we a great place to work. Inspired employees drive delighted experiences for customers. I am working on setting the expectation for each employee and our company to accelerate and deliver at the speed of our customers’ expectations. In other words, bringing products to market faster and improving the customer experience with their connected car in the same manner that customers expect from their smartphones."

3. An understanding of financial and contract management 

Global Michigan CIO of the Year 

John Hill, CIO & SVP, Business Planning, Carhartt: “At the individual contributor level, I see increasing demand for individuals who not only understand the technical aspects of cloud services, but who also possess strong financial skills. As companies continue to put more and more workloads in the cloud, it’s going to be increasingly important for associates to understand architecture, operations, performance, and their financial implications. Given the complexity and tradeoffs needed to manage a cloud environment, it is no longer effective to have procurement lead this area of financial and contract management. 

At the leadership level, a key to advancement will be the ability to identify areas for digitalization investments. We’ve reached a point where IT leaders need to understand their organization’s business models and processes as well as their business executives in order to identify the best digitalization opportunities. Companies that take an approach where the business is the product owner and IT builds whatever they prioritize do not set the company or the IT leader up for success. IT leaders who can recognize the opportunities that exist in the gray spaces between functions and processes will set themselves up for more success in the future.”

4. Cloud and security professionals needed 

Enterprise Michigan CIO of the Year 

Jennifer Charters, EVP & CIO, Flagstar Bank: “In 2021, there are two areas in particular I believe will be in high demand, both driven by the pandemic. First are cloud engineers and architects. These are people who can help organizations migrate their on-premise applications to cloud infrastructure. Cloud infrastructure provides flexibility, scalability, and resiliency that organizations need to better support their vital digital platforms. Second are security professionals. We’ve seen threats increase as bad actors attempt to take advantage of the pandemic chaos. Protecting data assets remains a high priority. For IT talent looking to advance their skills in the year ahead, focusing on either of these areas will likely be useful for their own advancement while also supporting the needs of modern IT organizations.”

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5. Communication skills and more

Corporate Michigan CIO of the Year 

Andy Frey, CIO, OneMagnify: “In any aspect of IT, the team members who will grow the most and are valuable are those who can communicate both with people in the business as well as others in IT. Presentation and thought leadership skills are always in demand. To build these skills, I encourage our team to reach out for external/internal speaking opportunities and self-learning opportunities in verbal and written communication.
As far as specific jobs that are in demand. I see two that stick out:

  • Cloud Architects who can work with application teams to design the infrastructure and DevOps paths for applications. In particular, architects who have a strong opinion and are willing to take on new technologies and ways of doing work.
  • Agile Managers/Product Owners who can communicate, develop User Stories, and organize and plan effectively, especially those who can bridge between delivery and the expectations of our clients. 

Lastly, I always appreciate our team members who reach out and volunteer in the communities in which they work and live. Not only does this support their communication skills, but they also gain a perspective that they otherwise would not have.”

6. An emphasis on constant learning 

Nonprofit/Public Sector Michigan CIO of the Year 

Ravi Pendse, VP of IT and CIO, University of Michigan: “When I think of the future of work and the skills that will help IT talent and their organizations thrive, this past year has truly emphasized the need for constant learning. Those who proactively seek out new ways of working are poised to be successful regardless of what the future may hold. 

Practically, for IT professionals, this means being an “integrator” of technology and ideas. It means being curious, and asking questions of the people who will be using the technologies you create and then really listening to their answers and making changes based on what you learn. I see a teacher in every person I interact with – there is so much we can learn from each other if we truly listen. 

A focus on constant learning also means being well-versed in modern approaches to building IT expertise. This could be different depending on your interests and role, but ultimately it means being open to taking online courses to learn a new technology or earning certifications in important areas such as cybersecurity, for example. It could mean learning when you should tap the power of cloud computing, and understanding what the capabilities are. 

Critical to all of this is understanding the culture of your organization. Those who take the time to implement their ideas in a way that respects their organization’s unique culture are more likely to see their best ideas flourish.”

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Ginny Holden is an independent consultant who brings the practice of IT to life through memorable storytelling.