Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Tips on Reskilling to leverage emerging IT and Digital Transformation opportunities

My blog (link) on layoffs and the offshoring IT Services last week seems to have touched a nerve: LinkedIn analytics indicates nearly 100K views and thousands of shares, likes and comments. The post also echoed murmurs in the industry that tens of thousands of existing employees – folks hired and trained on ‘other,’ ‘older’ technologies – are either un-trainable or possess ‘obsolete’ skills.
Mid-career professionals seem to be caught in a bind. During better times, when voluntary attrition was running at 20-25%, re-training and reskilling wasn’t such a big deal. A java, .NET or ABAP programmer could easily switch employers rather than stay on bench. Similarly, project managers with a strong background in the fundamentals of SDLC gained in a SAP program could easily move to manager another Oracle or SaaS platform integration project.
Business headwinds and a lack of foresight have caught IT service firms off-guard, and many executives are pointing to re-skilling challenge as a reason for excess bench at their organizations.
IT professionals seek structured inputs and guidelines, but when it comes to reskilling, much of the learnings are empirical. Added to this is the challenge of business change. Most ‘training plans’ defined during annual performance reviews end up being nebulous. Changing business drivers, shifting budgets and project requirements take precedence, pushing training plans to the backburner.

How to reskill? Show me a roadmap

Those looking for a reskilling plan or roadmap are not going to find one. However, there are sufficient clues that one can gather by just looking at the tech landscape. Periodic review of technology journals, blogs and engaging in online discussion forums can give insights on some of the emerging trends. Similarly, attending technology seminars and conferences are a popular way to network with peers and stay updated. Some ideas on retraining follow:-

On the job shift

On-the-job retraining is perhaps the most common and preferred mode. Employees of service firms may gain insights on demand for specific technologies by observing the bids, proposals and projects from clients. Likewise, those working for end-user organizations may have an opportunity to observe proposals from their business partners.  
A couple of years ago, the global manufacturing company I worked for embarked on a major Salesforce CRM rollout. The program started with a small footprint in a single region but soon gathered momentum. Dozens of consultants and analysts from an implementation partner were engaged to support the company’s core team. It was obvious to IS team members that aligning with that global SFDC rollout was a long-term career enhancing move. Folks began to seek formal and informal opportunities to contribute to the program. Some got to attend SFDC training, and even the global Dreamforce workshops.
A similar story repeated when the organization began a program to migrate platforms and systems to the cloud (refer: my blog on AWS)
An awareness of such opportunities – a new project or technology rollout – is just the first step. To make the shift, one may also have to address practical challenges including office politics (you may or may not be ‘invited’ to the new project), or the fact that you are really good at your current job (your manager may not be willing to release you to join the other program).

Incremental skill building vs. a Strategic Shift

Reskilling and moving up the career ladder may sometimes feel like a ‘random walk’ but in reality, one either is building incremental skills or making Strategic Shifts.
The most efficient (and easier) way to re-skill is by incrementally building on one’s experiences in a technical platform or domain. Retraining on newer capabilities or a complementary vendor product may involve some effort, but can be seamless. For example, SAP consultants will be motivated to get certified in “SAP HANA 1.0”. Likewise, Microsoft and Java consultants may stay updated on developments in .NET or J2EE space. A few years ago when organizations began planning to move their application platforms to the Cloud, infrastructure and platform engineers were quick to recognize the shift and began learning about the fundamentals of public and private cloud hosting and vendor offerings like AWS, Azure etc (my blog )
Individuals with expertise in a domain or technology may opt for a Strategic Shift by re-skilling in a completely new domain or technology platform. Sometimes, the shift may not involve another technology but rather be a move from technical to program management stream or the vice versa. I use the term ‘Strategic’ loosely since such shift may also be dictated by personal goals, market demand, employer’s needs or other external factors. For instance, when vendors like Informix (Database), BaaN (ERP) and Peoplesoft (HRMS) began losing market-share, hundreds of programmers and consultants who had specialized in these platforms began evaluating their options. Some quickly shifted to allied technologies while others moved across domains and roles.

Training and Certifications

Online discussion forums and career groups regularly address questions on ‘significance and value’ of certifications. Many engage in vocal discussions on rhetorical questions like “Is a PMP/TOGAF/ITIL/Black-Belt/etc certified Project Manager/Architect/Lead better’ than someone who isn’t certified?”
The reason for such questions are obvious: There are a vast array of certifications of a variety of topics from vendors and other industry groups to choose from. Acquiring a certification or credential can amount to a significant investment, especially when combined with focused training sessions, time for study and self-learning; not to mention the cost of certification exam itself.
Questioning the ‘value’ of certification is moot since headhunters, recruiters and hiring teams frequently use certifications as filtering key-words. An awesome Program Manager’s resume may not get past the initial screening if ‘PMP’ were used as a filter. (This is just a practical reality, not intended to trigger a debate on the merits of PMI’s certification credentials.). It is obvious that training and certification opportunities should figure in a reskilling plan.

Reskill in a context: building on fundamentals

Tech employers are reporting an increasing demand for skills to enable Digital transformation and to leverage innovations in Big Data analytics, integration and visualization, robotics, IoT, Artificial Intelligence etc. While there is some demand for specialists, the demand is greater for folks who are grounded in the fundamentals of IS deployment in a corporate landscape. These are the folks with a strong background in software development lifecycles who can design, customize, integrate and enable such digital platforms.
Let us take the example of big-data, analytics and visualization which figure among the hottest new technology trends (link). I recently led a team to define the architecture for ‘Digitization of Agronomy’ enabled by big-data and analytical modeling. The Agronomists and data scientists had a good understanding of the kind of data they needed for visualization, and to address their ‘what if’ modeling. They helped identify the disparate data sources inside and external to the organization, and were aided by a few specialists who had gained expertise in tools like Qlik, MongoDB etc. This turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. The larger effort was to design and operationalize the required Data repositories, and integration of data flows across the disparate sources – activities that the existing IS teams were well versed in. (link – case study highlights)
Bottomline: Tech executives and employees need to stay grounded on the fundamentals of IS while planning to re-skill.

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