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IT’s most wanted: 16 traits of indispensable IT pros

IT’s most wanted: 16 traits of indispensable IT pros

Looking to hire (or be) the best? Here are the intangibles that make top IT performers stand out.

On a good tech team, cross training and clear documentation keep projects humming along — even when colleagues need to be away — averting disaster. That said, have you ever noticed that when certain people in your office aren’t there, work tends to stall, deadlines slip, and sprints seem less … agile?

These standout IT pros know how to make themselves invaluable. They're the coders, project leads and managers the organization can’t do without. We asked a dozen IT experts what highly effective habits these folks have — and also mined their experience for tips on how to replicate the success of rock-star team members. Where you’re looking to hire top-notch talent or up your game to indispensable status, here’s what top performers do that make them so hard to replace.

They’re curious

Robert Douglas, owner of PlanetMagpie IT Consulting, says he’s hired a number of outstanding employees for his team, and they all have the same trait: technical curiosity that extends outside the office.

“These are the IT pros who build mini data centers in their garage out of e-waste they scavenged over months of work,” Douglas says. “Why? Because it’s fun. They can think way outside of the box. They can bring a downed network back to life with discarded gear and a few cables they had lying around — and keep it running until fresh components arrive.”

They adapt

Taking fresh looks at old problems is an essential part of the digital transformations that are changing many organization’s cultures, leading to approaches like DevOps and agile and incorporating emerging technical solutions such as AI and IoT, says Christoph Goldenstern, global vice president of innovation and service excellence at Kepner-Tregoe. Likewise, team members who are willing to adopt new ways of working are highly sought after.

“There is one thing that IT staff cannot afford — and that’s to stand still,” Goldenstern says. “The willingness to learn and keep evolving, making yourself vulnerable in the process, is absolutely essential to staying relevant and being a growth driver in a constantly evolving business.”

They solve problems

Most successful tech team members have keen analytical minds, says Paul Martini, CEO of network security firm iboss, and it’s a trait that’s more important than tech chops.

“In order to succeed in IT you need to have the ability to look at a problem, analyze it, and find a way to solve it,” Martini says. “I look for people who understand their strengths and weaknesses. These are the people that are most capable of learning on the job, while still improving the team’s ability overall. Look at raw potential. If you have potential and the drive to improve, the rest will follow.”

They offer unique perspectives

To mix things up and avoid groupthink, Andrew Avanessian, COO of endpoint security firm Avecto, looks for a combination of tech skills and a unique viewpoint when he’s hiring. 

Related video: 7 IT salary and hiring trends for 2018 

“The most successful teams … embrace each team member’s individual talents and challenge their teammates to think differently,” Avanessian says. “IT professionals are constantly required to learn new skills and embrace new technology — the job you were doing a year ago might have completely changed. For that reason, I value adaptability and eagerness to learn above all else.”

They can code

Even non-tech staff are using their own coding solutions to solve problems these days. Those who have put the time in and learned to code are increasingly in demand.

“Using at least one scripting language is a life skill for anyone,” says Matt Wilgus, practice director of threat and vulnerability assessment services of Schellman & Co. “Being able to accomplish a task that’s not in an application — or at least not part of a graphical user interface — is common. To get the most out of web services from vendors and move data in and out of disparate systems often requires interacting with data through scripts.”

You don’t need to create breakthrough algorithms, but learning how to write simple scripts can go a long ways, says Andrew Odewahn, CTO at tech publisher O’Reilly.

“For the vast majority of people working in the trenches, once you have a solid grounding in at least one language, learning how to learn is a more important skill than a degree in computer science,” Odewahn says. “Even simple systems involve many different tools and languages, so it would be nearly impossible to know them all ahead of time. You might find yourself working in Python, JavaScript, Git, GitHub and Docker on even a simple project, so the ability to take what you know how to do in one language or tool and quickly pick up another is crucial.”

They have soft skills

Business consulting firm Capgemini put out a study late last year on the digital skills gap and the upshot was more employers were seeing a soft skills gap (about 60 percent) than a hard tech skills gap (about half of those surveyed).

The most in-demand skills were a focus on customers and a desire to learn. The skills that were the most difficult to find, respondents said, were efficient collaboration as part of a team and ease of dealing with change. 

They teach others

The ability to mentor others provides benefits for the organization but also for the person doing the teaching, and they go beyond checking off a box on a performance review.

“A technical professional that takes the time to teach others is a trait we look for in our team,” Wilgus says. “Teaching not only shows technical proficiency, but also demonstrates soft skills such as public speaking, patience and organizational skills.” 

They avoid a cut-and-paste approach

O’Reilly’s Odewahn says the best tech team members are able to shake up the way they approach problems. They don’t just search online for an answer or head to StackOverflow.

“There's a lot of craft and judgment involved,” Odewahn says. “While it's nice to be fast, most problems will require digging in with many different attempts, given we’re working in complex, distributed teams where the dividing lines for solutions simply aren't clear. Past a point of minimal competency, it's the soft skills that really make someone stand out. It's essential to have the ability and willingness to learn and apply new things. While having engineers chase shiny new toys is a problem that will always need to be managed carefully, a good engineer will be naturally interested and curious about how to connect new tools or techniques to the problems at hand.”

They’re coachable

A tech pro with intelligence and a strong work ethic is an impressive twofer, but Derek Langone, CEO of Boston-based XebiaLabs, says adding a third element — being coachable — makes a coworker truly indispensable.

“This is often the hardest trait to predict,” Langone says. “But it’s also the one that makes the difference between success and failure. In my experience, if these three traits are present in a candidate, their probability for success is very high. And they handle input well. With DevOps expertise in high demand and the skillset constantly evolving, being amenable to change and willing to strive for growth are critical.”

They understand the business

As technology becomes part of every unit of a business and not simply an IT department concern, there’s a fundamental need to understand what the customer wants. And those that do get noticed.

“What makes them stand out is their ability to connect them to the needs of the business and understanding what actually is considered important by the user of IT,” says Goldenstern. “There are many IT engineers with broad technical skills. Focusing on value versus features and adoption versus simply rolling something new out is what will make IT engineers and managers stand out.”

They know how to work with vendors

Businesses that rely on the cloud for services from email to data science need IT pros who are adept at working with service providers outside the walls of their organization.

“Vendor management skills are a must-have,” says Rich Murr, CIO at Epicor Software. “While not necessarily a tech skill, it’s becoming indispensable as IT departments leverage an increasing number of third parties, including cloud vendors.”

Vital employees understand “everything as a service — software, hardware, and network,” says Jim Haskin, CIO of Aspect Software. “Gone are the days of dedicated servers, apps, networks, etc.”

They value data

It’s no surprise to anyone working in technology that data science skills are in demand. Go-to tech pros help their organizations by gleaning insights from structured and unstructured data, say our experts.

“Data science and data engineering are skills more developers and technologists will need to have in their toolbox,” says Odewahn. “However, as more and more cloud services start offering these at scale as services — like Amazon Sagemaker — understanding how to apply your data to your specific problems will be more important than the underlying tech. I'm very excited about these AI-as-a-service model and what's possible.”

They begin with the end in mind

Soft skills come into play when technology staff are frequently meeting with multiple teams, and they need to communicate a vision of how customers will be using the product, say Koreen Pagano, project management director at D2L, an online learning tool.

“Most engineers are not being taught those skills during their education, and have to learn them on the job to be successful,” Pagano says. “Companies are the ones currently filling the skills gap for technical employees who enter the workforce technically proficient but are often unable to navigate their role in the larger business context.”

They think big

The best members of a tech team think broadly, says Jay Jamison, senior vice president of strategy and product management at low-code software maker Quick Base. They create what he calls “reverb impact” — the ability to develop a technical solution and then apply it to other needs in the company.

“One team recently built an eventing infrastructure to solve one set of customer challenges in a way that enabled us to leverage that same infrastructure to solve another set of problems,” Jamison says. “The success was due to the team coupling curiosity with fast execution and broad-scale thinking.”

They can do your job

It may seem counterintuitive, but a number of our sources said what they really appreciate is someone who keeps things running when they’re away, in a demanding environment and without a hitch.

“If you want a day off in the technology firm, you better be sure you have good people around you to stand in and cover,” says Kate Donofrio, technical lead of Schellman and Co. “I’ve taken many trips with laptops and let me tell you it takes a toll on your personal life. Be willing to teach those around you what you do, and don’t fear that they’ll take your job. In fact, you better train them so they can take your job, so there are places for you to move without putting the company at risk.”

They understand what it means to lead

Execs notice workers with leadership skills, and O’Reilly’s Odewahn says it’s more than just assigning tasks and nudging people to hit their deadlines.

“Too many people confuse the formal authority of management — which should just be about deciding what gets done and when — with the tacit authority of leadership, which is about getting people to work together as an effective team to solve a problem,” says O’Reilly’s Odewahn. “A good leader brings people together, keeps calm, understands their strengths and weaknesses and can carry a consistent vision across the daily sprint cycles. As a senior person in any organization, one of your most important jobs is identifying and cultivating people with leadership ability, and helping them succeed in their careers. If for no other reason than being purely selfish, their success is your success.”

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