The Five Skills of the Quantum IT Professional

By Charles Araujo  |  Posted 01-22-2013

The Five Skills of the Quantum IT Professional

By Charles Araujo

In 1992, General Motors and the United Auto Workers (UAW) set up about three dozen “skill centers” across the country to train auto workers in new skills. These workers were not displaced--at least not yet. The union and GM had negotiated this training because they saw the industry was changing and it would likely lead to fewer jobs and a lot of displaced workers. So they proactively established these training centers to prepare workers for what was to come.

Eventually, more than 100 of these skill centers were established and chartered to fill a gap. GM and the UAW recognized that autoworkers were going to need new skills to compete in an evolving economy. They realized that the very skills that had served the workers well--in some cases for more than 40 years--would no longer be sufficient in their rapidly changing industry.

We are in a similar situation in the IT industry today. The technical skills that have been in such great demand for IT professionals over the last 10 or 20 years are rapidly being devalued. As technology becomes commoditized, standardized and globalized, the technical skills that were in such short supply just a few years ago are now becoming marginalized. And like the auto industry a generation ago, IT professionals need to rapidly learn new skills to compete as the IT industry transitions to a new era.

New Skills For a New Age 

Previously, I explored the forces driving fundamental changes to the IT business model. This is leading to what is being called the Quantum Age of IT--an era in which IT success and value is driven less by technology and more by relationships and interactions. We examined how this is leading IT organizations to develop five organizational traits to become learning organizations, disciplined organizations, transparent organizations, intimate organizations and, finally, dynamic organizations.

But these organizational traits can only be fueled by people. It is IT professionals who must come to embody these traits. To do so, a new set of skills is required. A set of skills that will help IT professionals reorient themselves toward the demands of this new age. These skills are:

•         Financial management

•         Critical thinking and analytical skills

•         Marketing and communication

•         Innovation and collaboration

•         Leadership

These skills are often called “soft skills.” But that term is a misnomer. They are actually much more difficult to acquire than technical skills and, in many cases, will come much less naturally to IT professionals. But successfully acquiring them will be the difference between irrelevance and thriving in the Quantum Age of IT.

The Five Skills of the Quantum IT Professional

The five skills of the quantum IT professional are aligned across a spectrum from more technical to more creative and from more concrete to more abstract. They do not necessarily build upon one another, nor are they arranged in a hierarchy, but this structure may help you organize the most effective approach to developing them. Whatever approach you take, what is important is that you develop them and apply them to what you do every day--and that you start now.

The Five Skills of the Quantum IT Professional

Financial Management Skills
The biggest challenge with financial management may not be the technical skill, per se, but simply being willing to care about it. There are really two parts to the skill of financial management. The first is the technical component, such as learning how to read financial statements and how to understand investments in terms of return on investment, net present value and similar measures. These are important and, thankfully, there are many ready sources of education to learn these basics.

The more challenging aspect to financial management, however, may be the understanding that in the Quantum Age, financial management will become one of the primary mechanisms used to manage the daily operations of an IT organization. For most elements of an enterprise, financials are at the center of all activities and decisions. This is not the case in most IT organizations. Financial management is the thing that must be done in order to get a project funded, but after that it is rarely discussed except at the uppermost levels of the IT organization.

To be a quantum IT professional you must take a different approach. You must learn the financial skills and then embed them into your operational management model. Whether you are an individual contributor or a part of senior management, financials must become one of the primary metrics and tools used to monitor and drive operational delivery of the IT organization.

Critical Thinking and Analytical Skills
Many IT professionals probably feel that they have all of the critical thinking and analytical skills they need. This may be true from a technical perspective. IT professionals are natural problem solvers and love to get to the bottom of technical challenges. The problem is that these same problem solving skills are often not applied to the disciplines of management, process and governance.

The heavy reliance on “best practices” and the sense that problems in these disciplines are less interesting to solve have left many IT organizations vulnerable to stagnation. On one hand, IT professionals tend to love change if that change comes wrapped in a new form of technology. But we are often very unwilling to change how we operate on a day-to-day basis. This is where critical thinking and analytical skills must be developed and applied.

It is rarely the lack of technical disciplines that cause frustration and service failures in IT organizations. It is almost always a lack of robust operating procedures, management disciplines and governance protocols that cause them. To thrive in this new age, quantum IT professionals will need to get comfortable with challenging the way things are done, to understand the business drivers behind operational delivery models, and creatively adopt, adapt and integrate effective industry practices to meet their specific needs. 

Marketing and Communication Skills
IT professionals do not always like to admit it and probably wish it were not true, but we are always selling ourselves, our value and our services to our business customers. This has almost always been the case, but the mystique and “cloud of complexity” that have historically come with technology has created a buffer. But this has changed.

The Five Skills of the Quantum IT Professional

Our customers are more technology savvy than ever before and they rely on our technology solutions to enable and drive virtually every part of the business. Most importantly, they are often comparing and contrasting the services they receive from us with those that they receive on a personal level and with those services from new competitors who are selling directly to them. The challenge for them--and, more critically, for us--is that we do not typically make it easy for them to compare the value they receive. While consumer technology firms and cloud providers are speaking “their language,” most internal IT organizations continue to speak only in the “language of technology.”

Quantum IT professionals will understand that to compete and thrive in the Quantum Age, they will need to speak in terms of service and value that the customer can understand. You will need to master the ability to understand how IT services produce business value, understand the various customer segments that you service, and to map your services against your competitors to identify both differentiators and areas in which you are simply not competitive. You will then need to learn the art of communicating that value message in terms that are both meaningful and consumable by your various customer constituencies. It is probably a lot more than you signed up for, but it is the reality of competing in the Quantum Age.

Innovation and Collaboration Skills
Technology is all about innovation, right? Collaboration is fueled by technology, isn’t it? The irony is that while technology is one of the greatest engines of innovation and collaboration the world has ever seen, IT organizations are notoriously bad at both of these skills. This is mostly the result of the ever increasing complexity that exists within IT organizations. The level of technical discipline and domain expertise required to effectively manage our modern, complex technology architectures builds a set of inherent technology-driven silos that are difficult to overcome. From the outside looking in, most non-IT people think that we are just a bunch of interchangeable geeks. We know, however, that the reality is different. It can be very difficult to innovate and collaborate when we don’t even speak the same “technology dialect” as the person in the next cube.

Innovation in the Quantum Age is no simple task. There will be no true innovation within a silo. Innovation will only come through collaborative efforts that rise up to the highest common denominator--the business problems that need solving. Innovation and collaboration is difficult when it is only allowed to exist at a technical level. But when it is elevated to the level of identifying the “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” that an entire team can rally around, then it is not only possible, but fun and engaging.

The skill that the Quantum IT professional must master is therefore not how to come up with better ideas. Instead, you must master the skills of clarity and inspiration. You must learn how to see the big problems that need fixing and then develop the ability to inspire others to see the opportunity with you--and their role in fixing them. It is this ability to clearly see the big problems and opportunities--those that will drive meaningful value--and then to “rally the troops” around solving them that will create a new era of innovation and collaboration for IT organizations.

The Five Skills of the Quantum IT Professional

Leadership Skills
The most abstract of the five skills of the IT professional is leadership. What is leadership? Let’s start with what it is not. It is not managing people.  While we all hope that our manager is also a leader to us, simply managing people does not make you a leader. Nor does the fact that you manage no one mean that is impossible for you to be a leader. In fact, some of the most impactful leaders in the world have been those who led when no one was compelled to follow.

In fact, that may be the very best definition of leadership you can use. Leadership is inspiring others to act because they believe in your vision. If you look carefully, you will see that the building blocks of leadership are sprinkled throughout the other four skills. To lead, you must have a vision--a goal, an end state in mind. You cannot lead if you have no destination.  You then must be able to inspire others to act on that vision. That requires communication, empathy skills and, yes, a bit of marketing.

But should everyone in IT become a leader? Does everyone in IT need leadership skills? Absolutely, positively, 100%, yes. If you think through the five organizational traits and think what it will take to realize them within your organization, you will quickly see that it will take countless acts of leadership at all levels of the organization to make them a reality. Leadership is about seeing a future that is better than it is today and leading the charge to realize it. It is the raw essence of the Quantum Age.

Thriving in the Quantum Age

The Quantum Age is upon us and for IT professionals it means that a lot is about to change. In the very near future, our organizations will look very different than they do today. The skills that we will need to compete and thrive are not the skills that we have been learning, honing and refining for all of these years. These new traits and skills may make us feel uncomfortable and lost for a time, but the Quantum Age is not an end, it is a beginning.

While change is always uncomfortable, this is a time of great hope and great opportunity for those IT professionals who are willing to grasp it. The impact of technology on business and on every aspect of our lives is going to grow exponentially. And while some elements of IT will become commoditized, there will be a vast need for those who can bridge the ever widening gap between the complexity of the technology and the value to be realized from harnessing it. 

The greatest innovations are still yet to come. The full realization of IT’s promise is about to come to fruition. It is an amazing time to be an IT professional--as long as you are willing to learn the skills you need to enter the Quantum Age.

About the Author

Charles Araujo is the founder and CEO of The IT Transformation Institute, which is dedicated to helping IT leaders transform their teams into customer-focused, value-driven learning organizations. He is the author of the book The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change, is presently at work on two new books. Araujo is also the creator of DeepRoots, an organizational change methodology designed for IT teams. He frequently speaks and writes on a wide range of subjects related to his vision of the future of IT.