8 hot IT skills for 2014

Help desk staffers are coveted, but developers are the hottest commodity of all

When it comes to overall job prospects for IT professionals, 2014 will look a lot like this year, with 32 percent of companies expecting to increase head count in their IT shops, compared with 33 percent in 2013, according to Computerworld's annual Forecast survey.

But while demand will remain steady overall, there have been a few changes in the skill sets most desired by hiring managers. Unemployment "is probably close to zero for people with high-demand skill sets," says Michael Kirven, founder and CEO of Mondo, a technology resource provider. Employers in search of top skills, he says, need to be prepared to move fast. "If you want them, you can be 100 percent sure there are at least two other firms that want them, as well," he says.

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Here's a look at the IT skills that will be in demand next year, according to companies with plans to hire IT professionals in 2014.

1. Programming/application development

  • 49 percent of respondents said that they plan to hire for this skill in the next 12 months.
  • Last year's ranking: No. 1

As it did in the 2013 Forecast survey, programming/application development tops the list of hot skills, although just under half of the 221 respondents said they will hire in this area, compared with 60 percent last year. Scot Melland, CEO of Dice Holdings, parent of IT jobs website Dice.com, concurs that software developers are the most sought-after technology workers and notes that they enjoy one of the lowest unemployment rates around -- just 1.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's no wonder, then, that respondents to the Computerworld 2014 Forecast survey named developer and programmer job openings as the most difficult to fill. The hottest specialties within that category, Melland says, are mobile development expertise and experience building secure applications.

Carbonite, an online backup service provider, expects to find a tight market for software developers and engineers as it shifts its business model to focus on the needs of small businesses, says Randy Bogue, vice president of talent at the Boston-based company. "While there are a lot of experienced software developers in the Boston area, there are just as many technology companies looking to hire them," he says. "We find this while looking for front-end developers, user experience engineers, mobile developers and pretty much any other software development position."

Lucille Mayer, CIO at BNY Mellon, also expects to have difficulty finding developers. The financial services company has several hundred openings, mainly in New York City and Pittsburgh, and about 40 percent of those are in development. Another 30 percent are in infrastructure, 20 percent are for business analysis/project management positions, and 10 percent are in management.

"Demand is high for skilled developers with three to five years' experience and a service delivery orientation," says Mayer, who is particularly interested in people with object-oriented development experience. Also important is finding people from diverse backgrounds, with diverse ideas and perspectives, she says.

Hospitality giant Hyatt is transitioning from a reliance on third-party service providers and aims to bring more development talent in-house. "We're looking to hire people who embrace agility and speed to move ideas to prototype and production quickly," says Alex Zoghlin, Hyatt's global head of technology.

2. Help desk/technical support

  • 37 percent of respondents said that they plan to hire for this skill in the next 12 months.
  • Last year's ranking: No. 3

Help desk/tech support remained near the top of the list, moving up from No. 3 last year. Melland says that's an encouraging sign for the economy and the overall hiring outlook. "Organizations mainly add help desk and tech support when they're adding workers and expanding their technology infrastructure," he says. Also contributing to demand for support technicians is the fact that many companies are bringing the help desk back in-house after outsourcing that function; that's partly a response to the proliferation of mobile devices and company-provided Web services. Because of the complexity of such setups, "it's important for support staff to really understand what the company is doing, which argues for having this function closer to home," Melland says.

After several years of running a lean support function, Wolverine Advanced Materials in Dearborn, Mich., plans to hire a few help desk staffers in response to business growth and a decision to provide ITIL-based service management, says James Bland, network manager at the automotive materials supplier. "There is growth in the company, so we're more confident in hiring," he says.

3. Networking

  • 31 percent of respondents said that they plan to hire for this skill in the next 12 months.
  • Last year's ranking: No. 8

Demand for networking skills jumped to No. 3 from eighth place last year. This correlates with the results of a recent survey by IT hiring firm Robert Half Technology, in which 55 percent of the respondents named network administration as the skill

The need for wireless connectivity is probably behind the interest in networking professionals, Melland says. "Demand for people with wireless networking experience is up 9 percent year over year," he says, and the unemployment rate for network and systems administrators is 1.1 percent.

Charles Whitby, lead network analyst at the Medical Center of Central Georgia, says growing use of wireless medical devices is definitely fueling his workload. In addition to the increased network traffic they produce, those devices require a lot of troubleshooting -- as is the case when, for example, their firmware needs upgrading but it hasn't been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, he says.

Meanwhile, at Wolverine, Bland is looking to offload some networking responsibilities so he can concentrate on more strategic issues.

4. Mobile applications and device management

  • 27 percent of respondents said that they plan to hire for this skill in the next 12 months.
  • Last year's ranking: No. 9

With mobile devices proliferating in both the corporate and consumer worlds, it's little wonder that mobile skills catapulted toward the top of the list, from No. 9 last year. And because of mobile's relatively new status, it's also not surprising that Computerworld survey respondents named mobile expertise the third most difficult skill to find, after development and BI/analytics skills.

Mobile app development is "a huge initiative" at PrimeLending in Dallas, says CIO Tim Elkins, and it will be a key hiring area next year. In addition to expanding its Salesforce.com development ranks, the mortgage provider hopes to hire two or three mobile developers, he says. PrimeLending's first mobile app is designed to enable its business partners -- real estate agents and builders -- to view loan statuses; its next one will be for consumers.

Elkins anticipates difficulty finding mobile developers and is therefore training a couple of current staffers to fill the need. "Salesforce.com developers are really tough to find because of the high demand, and so are mobile developers," he says.

Mobile expertise is also a priority for Hyatt, and Zoghlin says the company is trying to fill niche roles to ensure a consistent strategy across areas like mobility and user experience.

5. Project Management

  • 25 percent of respondents said that they plan to hire for this skill in the next 12 months.
  • Last year's ranking: No. 2

While project management fell from its No. 2 position last year, it is considered a highly sought-after skill. Melland says that Dice has found demand for project managers to be second only to demand for software developers/engineers, having risen 11 percent from last year. That uptick, he says, is another positive sign for the economy as a whole, because it indicates that companies are willing to pursue strategic projects.

Mondo's Kirven attributes the demand for project managers to renewed interest in complex, strategic business-technology initiatives. "IT has historically been graded based on the success or failure of projects, so [companies are] making heavy investments in the business analyst/project manager layer," he says. "These people need to be able to talk to developers about technology and the right solution, but they also need to put on their business hat to gather requirements and prioritize needs and translate that into a programmable effort for IT."

6. Database Administration

  • 24 percent of respondents said that they plan to hire for this skill in the next 12 months.
  • Last year's ranking: Not ranked

Database administration -- which didn't even make last year's list -- will be hot in 2014, likely because of interest in big data. Kirven concedes that the term big data is a catch-all for everything companies want to do with the burgeoning stockpiles of information they store on internal systems and, increasingly, collect from sources such as social media sites, the Web and third parties. Much of the interest in big data originates in marketing, which wants to learn as much about customers as possible.

"Oracle DBAs, data architects -- these people stay on the market for about an hour until they're hired," Kirven says. "People are looking for that person who can build a logical data map of their systems and aggregate relevant data so they can analyze and report on it."

DBAs with experience moving pieces of the IT infrastructure to the cloud will be highly sought after, says Melland, noting that demand for cloud skills is up 32 percent from last year.

To help kick off PrimeLending's big data initiative, Elkins says he is seeking systems analysts, developers and DBAs to integrate data from third parties, with the goal of easing the mortgage process. "Mortgages have been like a big black hole, with a lack of transparency and a lot of sitting and waiting," Elkins says. "Our focus in 2014 is to give consumers more control and an experience with mortgages that they've never had before."

7. Security Compliance/Governance

  • 21 percent of respondents said that they plan to hire for this skill in the next 12 months.
  • Last year's ranking: No. 4

Security expertise seems to show up on every list of hot IT skills, and Melland says interest in cybersecurity will further drive demand, which is up 23 percent from last year. "It's one of those skills that falls into a lot of job types, like network engineering, software development and database architecture," he says. Respondents to a recent Robert Half Technology survey said security jobs are among the most challenging to fill, in addition to application development and database management positions.

With the increase in malware and cyberattacks, security has become a No. 1 priority for PrimeLending, which doubled its security staff this year, from four to eight people, Elkins says.

8. Business Intelligence/Analytics

  • 18 percent of respondents said that they plan to hire for this skill in the next 12 months.
  • Last year's ranking: No. 5

With the volume of global data predicted to expand by a factor of 44 from 2009 to 2020 and reach 35.2 zettabytes, according to IDC, companies are eager to gain a competitive edge by developing sophisticated analytics capabilities. Although BI/analytics is still considered a specialty and therefore has fewer postings than other job categories on Dice.com, Melland says it's the third fastest-growing skill area on the website, and demand is up 100 percent from last year. Analytics expertise is scarce, ranking second among the most difficult skills to find in the Computerworld survey. Accordingly, these professionals command high salaries, often into the six figures, Melland says.

At Wolverine, management's demand for data-driven insights is growing, so Bland is looking for people with BI skills who are also familiar with the Plex Systems ERP application, which the company uses. "We would definitely like to get more information out of [our ERP] system, so someone with BI experience would be great," he says. "We'd like to provide more information in a more timely manner so the business can be more proactive." Hyatt, says Zoghlin, is similarly looking for people "who can make analytics usable and useful for customers and colleagues."

Forecast 2014

Looking beyond tech skills when hiring IT workers

Technology skills aren't the only factor to consider when assessing candidates for IT jobs. Employers should also consider applicants' interpersonal skills to ensure new hires will be effective in the workplace. The two most important characteristics, according to the Computerworld Forecast survey, are the ability to collaborate (cited by 66 percent of the respondents) and the ability to communicate with business users (62 percent). This comes as no surprise to Scot Melland, CEO of Dice Holdings. "So much technology is being used in every part of the organization that you need people who are good communicators," he says.

James Bland, network manager at Wolverine Advanced Materials, says those are skills he will seek in new hires. "I want to empower our users to know how IT can help them be more efficient and get their job done," he says, and that can happen only when IT helps translate systems capabilities into something the user can put to good use. "You can implement the best systems in the world, but if people don't understand what to do with them, they're useless," Bland says.

Lucille Mayer, CIO at BNY Mellon, says a customer-service mentality is a must. "Our IT department is called Client Technology Solutions, and every one of us has a client customer, whether it be internal or external," she says. "A service orientation and being customer-focused, collaborative and a great communicator is essential."

An important communication skill is speaking the language of various business domains, such as marketing, sales and finance, Melland says. In fact, according to Michael Kirven at Modis, employers are increasingly seeking people with knowledge of business disciplines in addition to tech skills, whether it's an HTML5 developer who understands the supply chain in retail or a Java developer with experience in financial derivatives trading systems. "Specialization can really drive innovation," he says.

At PrimeLending, it's all about cultural fit. "We hire for culture first," says CIO Tim Elkins. This is particularly true at the leadership level. "If we're going to hire a new manager, it's not just a matter of whether they're a good leader but whether they can adapt to our style," which Elkins calls "servant leadership" -- meaning leaders are called to serve, not order people around.

This story, "8 hot IT skills for 2014" was originally published by Computerworld.

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