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Hiring: IT Certifications Vs. Real-World Skills

IT certifications may not have been an ideal screening mechanism for new tech workers, but it worked. Until recently. Now businesses are looking for workers who understand the business as well as technology.
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The stereotypical IT pro is not a people person. He or she tends to be introverted and more comfortable with lines of code than in-person meetings and is proudly unaware and uninvolved with the actual business a firm conducts.

For the most part, that portrait is as outdated as a Commodore 64. An October survey by Foote Partners, Vero Beach, Fla., of 74,000 IT professionals among 1,900 employers in the U.S. and Canada found for the first time since 2000 that workers with non-certified IT skills had higher salaries than those with certified skills.

David Foote, co-founder, CEO and chief research officer of Foote, says employers are now looking for non-technical skills like a knowledge of the company’s business and “even things like ethics in some cases” rather than, say, a certification in JavaBeans/EJB or Visual C++.

“More and more people are looking for people with good strong, sound experience,” says Diane Morello, vice president and fellow at Gartner, of Stamford, Conn. “That they may have certification is great, but certification is not where people are going to look initially, except for a very few technical areas, like security.”

Not your grandfather’s programmer

Or, as Debra Peterson, vice president of organization development and human resources for Acsys, a 42-person Web development firm in Farmington, Conn., put it: “It’s not your grandfather’s programmer anymore, someone who was introverted and just did his code. We want someone who’s interacting with team members, someone who’s really dynamic.”

The push for a more well-rounded techie, call him a renaissance techie, is being driven by several factors. Matt Colarusso, branch manager of the national recruiting and strategic accounts team for Sapphire Technologies, the Woburn, Mass., IT recruiter, says Microsoft’s .Net platform is a factor since consultants are usually versed in it, which means IT pros have to tech part in discussions that are equal parts tech and business. “Technologies like .Net have pushed people to become more flexible,” he says.

What to seek in a tech worker

The change has been happening for a while. Foote says that things began to shift in the 1990s as work became less specialized and new titles began to pop up. The growth of Unix, in particular, muddied the waters. “It was so out of control back then that they were lumping in Unix systems administrators with MVS,” or specialists in Multiple Virtual System, a programming language for mainframes, says Foote.

“They were like ‘What’s the difference?’” Foote says. The HR departments didn’t keep up with the changes.

Foote suggests instead of focusing on titles to seek candidates with a collection of skills that fit the profile. He acknowledges that de-emphasizing titles is somewhat controversial in the IT world. “IT people are very title-oriented because they know titles are everything when it comes to new jobs,” he says. “If you don¹t have SAP and SAP is hot and you don’t have SAP in your title, you’re not going to look that great when you’re out there looking for a job to have to explain you were an SAP person.”

Nevertheless, the fact is that the people doing the hiring are less impressed by specific skills than the ability to think on one’s feet and see the big picture. That’s especially true for small businesses, where having an IT pro who understands the company’s business and even shows an interest in it, is becoming a standard requirement.

“Typically that is the profile of anyone we have to bring in house,” Peterson says. “They are more multifaceted. We need to have some one who has really diverse skills and business acumen. Our last few hires meet those criteria.”




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