Skills gap? Hire flexible athletes, not single-position players

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CIO New Survey on Hiring

By John Michelsen, Chief Technology Officer, CA Technologies

With a constant flood of new technologies, it’s harder than ever for IT to stay fresh on the skills required to make the most of each cool new breakthrough.

It’s no wonder, then, that a recent survey of 1,300 senior IT leaders on the topic of the changing role of IT showed so much concern about the skills gap. When asked what actions they planned to cope with disruptive technologies, “provide more training on new technologies” came in first at 45% of respondents, closely followed by “hire new people with expertise” at 41%.

But IT organizations are setting themselves up for failure if they focus too much on one specific technology in their hiring. Markets like mobile, cloud, social, and big data are moving so quickly that it’s impossible to predict what skills you’ll need next year -- much less find candidates qualified in them. It reminds me of the job postings I see asking for people who have three years of experience in a technology that’s only been out in the marketplace for a year.

Rather than try to guess what you’ll need in the future and lock yourself into someone skilled only in that area, it’s better to hire the smartest, most adaptable, and curious generalists so they can turn on a dime as your needs change.   

Think, for example, about a classic systems engineer who lacks a broad background in IT, computer science, or legacy technology. Their training might be very deep in one vendor’s products, but it doesn’t make them flexible. They might be tops at using one vendor’s management console to create new accounts or provision servers or set firewall rules or whatever. But will they make a smooth transition to administering a fleet of Android mobile devices? I think not, because so many of the required technologies, terminology, and even pace of system updates are so different.

Now take someone who has more of a computer science background, who has seen multiple waves of technical change, and who lives and plays with new technology because they’re fascinated by it. Ask them to take on an Android environment and they’ll say “Cool, that sounds like fun. I don’t know everything about that but I’ve dabbled with it.” They’ll welcome the specialized training, come up to speed quickly, and probably come to you with new, creative uses of the technology.

I compare this to the difference between recruiting a “position player” like a tight end with the specialized skills for that position versus a great athlete that can be used in multiple roles. A smart coach looks for how strong an athlete is, how fast they run, how quickly they think, and how quickly they react to situations around them.  

The IT equivalent of a “position player” becomes outdated very quickly when the next hot technology comes along. Hiring too many of them creates a “brittle” organization that can’t adapt, and where retraining doesn’t work because the core competencies of its people don’t lend themselves to learning and adapting.

It’s a cliché that “the only constant is change” but that’s truer than ever before in IT. When you can’t tell what skills you will need in three years, or even six months, hire the IT equivalent of “good athletes.” If they are smart, curious, have a wide background, and love to learn, you can shift them around the technology field as needed.   

 That’s the only way to have the skills at the ready (or nearly at the ready) when your managers, employees, or customers make the call for the next great technology.

John is the Chief Technology Officer of CA Technologies. In that role, he is responsible for technical leadership and innovation, further developing the company’s technical community, and aligning its software strategy, architecture, and partner relationships to deliver customer value.