IT pros can prosper despite economic woes, say experts

As the world collectively holds its breath to see if efforts to shore up US's faltering economy succeed, IT professionals should be updating skills, taking on new responsibilities and working to become indispensable to their employers, experts say.

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As the country collectively holds its breath to see if efforts to shore up the faltering economy succeed, IT professionals should be updating skills, taking on new responsibilities and working to become indispensable to their employers, experts say.

Companies at the centre of the Wall Street's turmoil such as Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch are expected to cut IT head count, but more IT organisations are opting for a wait-and-see approach by restricting spending and putting off new hires.

In the interim, existing IT staff could be called upon to fill gaps and address needs not normally within their job description. (See related story, "Economic crisis means double duty for IT pros.")

"As any company looks to control costs, they look to IT people to become a jack of all trades in some respects. No one in IT can truly be that, but more companies are looking to staff to have broader, more diverse skill sets," says John Estes, a vice president with IT staffing and consulting firm Robert Half Technology.

Industry watchers say the economic downturn presents a chance for IT to show its value to the business. The Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) reports that it has seen an uptake in certifications training, which indicates that IT professionals see the need to update their skills to remain competitive. It could also be indicative of employers sending existing IT staff to training so they can take on additional responsibilities, CompTIA says.

"Historically, we see that certification volumes rise when the economy is somewhat sluggish, and that is indicative of less jobs and more competition in the market," says Kyle Gingrich, director of products and services, skills development at CompTIA. "Employees getting additional certifications are proving they are willing to learn more to support the company."

Robert Half Technology's Estes says IT workers who fear they are in danger of losing their jobs should update existing skills. For instance, SQL experts should get up to speed on SQL 2008 and anticipate the skills management might be seeking in the coming months. A .Net developer could learn Ajax, for instance, and network engineers could bone up on mobility and present the company chief with practical applications of the technology to help drive productivity, Estes says.

"IT workers can make themselves outsourcing-proof by demonstrating examples in which they could lead projects with a real ROI for the company," Estes says. "They should be really thinking about how this economic turmoil could impact their company and how IT could offset that."

IT professionals also argue that pitching in when business is bad could help IT professionals retain current positions and become more attractive to hiring managers.

"It is a real opportunity for IT to deliver business value add and fuel productivity gains via technologies such as unified collaboration and communication, mobility and executive information systems - in essence help do more with less," says Arun DeSouza, a director of strategic planning and security at Inergy Automotive Systems in Troy, Mich.

Others view the demand for more skills as a chance to broaden their knowledge and advance their careers in the long term. While taking on additional duties requires a delicate balance of existing work and new projects, IT managers say ultimately it benefits them to step up to the plate.

For instance Koie Smith, IT administrator with law firm Rainey, Kizer, Reviere & Bell, says he wasn't initially hired to develop the firm's website or help market the company, but because the task was in part technology-related, he pitched in. Now Smith feels he helped himself while also fulfilling a company need.

"Website development is not my initial field of expertise, but working on that helped me to understand the functions and the operations of the business, which in turn helps me know more about where we are going as a company," Smith explains. "Having that knowledge helps me better assess our needs for technology too, because I can better determine which technologies would have a greater positive impact for the firm."

Kamal Jain, director of operations and customer service at Auraria Networks, agrees. He works in QA testing, performs systems engineering tasks, partakes in testing and chimes in on architecture discussions. Working in IT for a start-up requires him to take on diverse responsibilities regardless of the economy, and for him, that is part of the appeal of working in a smaller IT environment.

"This allows me to be better prepared and also to guide projects based on technology resources available," Jain says. "I also find it very gratifying to know what the entire company is up to rather than being focused solely on IT."

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