Ready for 2020? Advice for every career stage

Information technology has always been a fast-changing field. But nothing compares to the expected sea changes in the next decade that will impact the career plans of every generation of IT worker.

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Information technology has always been a fast-changing field. But nothing compares to the expected sea changes in the next decade that will impact the career plans of every generation of IT worker.

"The rate of change has accelerated dramatically," says Alain Chesnais, president of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and founder of Visual Transitions, which specialises in computer graphics and social networks. Consider, he says, that graphics chips are doubling in capacity every six months. That translates into a thousandfold increase in capacity over a five-year period -- the average shelf life of most game platforms. "We've never seen anything like it in any industry," he says.

As the effects of these types of advances ripple across the corporate world and combine with the forces of the Web, mobile computing, consumerization and virtualisation, "traditional IT organisations won't look [the way] they do now," says Thomas Druby, an IT executive and former CIO at a large insurer.

"Help desks, network and desktop support, LANs, telecom - all those things are becoming a commodity that organisations will pay someone outside the company to do [so they can] focus their money and talent on niche areas that bring higher business value," Druby says. These niches, he adds, might require the services of business process specialists, people who can analyse and present business data, security experts and vendor relationship managers.

With that in mind, we've gathered some ideas on the actions that IT workers at three distinct stages of their careers need to take to prepare for the year 2020.

The Pipeliners

These are the college students who are getting degrees now and will fill payrolls in 2020.

Today's college students don't know life without a phone in their pocket and constant connectivity with family and friends. For this reason, they will in some ways be better prepared than previous generations for the pervasively mobile and services-oriented technology landscape of 2020.

At the same time, colleges can't adapt their curricula fast enough to prepare students for the complexities of cloud computing and virtualization, not to mention specific technologies such as Microsoft SharePoint, observers say. Recent graduates also seem naive when it comes to business basics and how computing foundations apply to the real world, says David Buzzell, CIO at The Sedona Group, a Moline, Ill.-based workforce management services provider.

"You bring a programmer or network administrator on board, and they don't have the big-picture view of how the business runs," he says. One recent hire, he notes, could program user interfaces but had no concept of a database. Another didn't know what an invoice was.

Druby agrees that colleges are in continual catch-up mode and have only recently added project management and soft skills training to computer science programs. "They're about five years behind where they need to be," he says. Students can fill that gap by pursuing internships, he suggests. "It can help them understand what the business is about, as well as the components of technology they wouldn't pick up at a university."

Tom Silver, a senior vice president at Dice.com, says more students are doing just that. And combining a technology degree with business knowledge will lead them to the higher-paying areas of IT.

Andrew Hrycaj is accomplishing this by working full-time as a network consultant while studying for an associate's degree, with the goal of earning a bachelor's. Hrycaj agrees that there's "an extreme gap" between the academic approach to IT and the real world, especially when it comes to cloud computing and virtualization. He believes the only way to learn how technology is really used is through experience. "It's the difference between being in it as opposed to talking about it from a thousand-foot view," he says.

Students can also seek out instructors who have spent time in industry. At Macomb Community College, for instance, Martin Kohl, professor of IT, not only teaches Java programming, but also has his students build an electronic health records system and then refer back to it throughout the semester. "We like to focus on, How can they apply this when they walk out the door? Can they use it?" he says.

To address the gap between college and real-world experience, the ACM has introduced new curriculum guidelines for undergraduate IT programs that address how computing is manifested in industries such as law, health, finance and government, Chesnais says. The guidelines are also influenced by trends such as the globalization of IT development processes, the ubiquitous use of Web technologies, and the emergence of Web services, software-as-a-service and cloud computing, he says.

Gretchen Koch, who heads CompTIA's "Getting America Back to Work" initiative, agrees that young professionals should think about IT as it's integrated into industry sectors. "They need to know about the industry they're participating in and the regulations those industries are bound by," she says. CompTIA is developing certifications for health IT and is working on programs for cloud security.

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