Commentary: Advice for aspiring D.C. IT professionals

August 17, 2014

Thanks to Mayor Vincent Gray’s Digital D.C. initiative, Northwest D.C may become a tech mecca for start-ups. But even before this initiative, the D.C, Maryland and Northern Virginia areas fared well in technology.

According to Forbes, the capital area has enjoyed 20.6 percent growth in tech employment since 2001. Additionally, the International Data Corp. has predicted that IT spending worldwide will grow by 4.6 percent this year alone.

When you combine this information with the knowledge that cybersecurity spending (especially in our nation’s capital) is at an all-time high, a career path in IT seems promising. If I’m a high schooler or freshman in college with a propensity for algorithms and the like, I look at these numbers and could, potentially, decide to major in computer science or information technology based on these statistics (especially if I wanted to stay in the D.C. area after graduation).

But it takes more than technical skills to succeed in IT Here are some equally important skills and attributes to attain:

A business degree. The IT industry is pretty young; in fact, the first IBM PC was introduced in 1981. Because of that, the qualifications and levels of professionalism range widely and there are no qualifying benchmarks from which the outside population can make discriminating assessments.

In other words, there is no equivalent to a CPA or a bar exam. There are no barriers to entry for this industry, and IT professionals range from those that are only qualified to answer questions about Microsoft Word to those who have engineering and business degrees and can advise companies about technical direction to achieve competitive business advantages.

So, get a business degree or a degree that teaches you to think practically and analytically. There are several technical certifications you can obtain later to learn those necessary skill sets, but there is a severe shortage of technical- and business-savvy IT professionals.

Patience. You will not graduate ready to be an IT professional. Even if you do major in computer science or information systems, curriculums can very rarely keep pace with how fast technology changes. So, obtain a solid academic degree and then immerse yourself in the world of IT to learn how it can contribute to organizational success. Put in the time and learn on the job; it will take patience to become a competent CIO.

Be ready to keep learning. If you are not committed to lifelong learning or if you are uncomfortable with change, IT is not the field for you. In fact, organizations with which you are interviewing should assess your personality to determine these traits. The rate of change in the technology industry outpaces changes in almost all other economic sectors; as such, IT professionals must be constantly evolving and growing to meet ever-changing demands.

An entrepreneurial spirit. Technology services are quickly commoditizing, and so IT as an industry must become more consultative in nature to provide real value to clients. Can you think outside of the box? Can you create something without direction? The next generation’s IT leaders will no longer be implementers, but, instead, advisers.

Is IT a great industry in D.C. and surrounding areas? You bet. IT touches almost every department in an organization — from operations to HR to marketing. As such, reputable IT service providers are essential to organizational success. Plus, every organization needs IT support and guidance.

Is IT an easy career path? Not at all. And, it is not what people expect. But, as the industry continues to evolve, IT providers incapable of delivering strategic, consultative, and business-focused advice will be weeded out. Demand for IT professionals who can become trusted business advisors charting the technology course to organizational goals will skyrocket and these uniquely-qualified individuals will be aggressively recruited.

Heinan Landa is the chief executive of Optimal Networks, a Rockville company that provides IT support, management, and consulting services to law firms, associations, and small- to mid-size businesses.

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