Can you read, write, and speak more than one language? If so, your multilingualism doesn’t necessarily make you a more marketable IT person, but it definitely makes you a better IT person.

This week, my advice is for the mentors and teachers of young people who are considering careers in information technology: Encourage students to learn a foreign language. When it comes to succeeding in IT, well-developed language skills are at least as valuable as technical skills.

How many ways can you say, “Try rebooting”?
I was a French major before I turned to computer science. I wooed my wife reciting romantic French poetry.

Has that language skill helped my IT career? You bet your sweet bippy, it has. Now I’ll admit that not once has any employer asked me if I could speak French. Nor have I ever used French to help support computer users. However, learning a second language forced me to learn English, which improved my communication skills.

Many IT professionals with outstanding technical skills don’t get jobs and don’t get promotions because their language skills are underdeveloped. They can build wide-area networks and program in C and Java, but when it comes to communicating clearly with nontechnical managers and coworkers, they fail miserably. (Of course, that’s job security for technical writers like myself!)

So what are IT pros to do? Take a class in English grammar and composition. Take a class in Spanish or Japanese. Learn to express yourself.

The demand for bilingual tech support
While mastery of a foreign language can be extremely helpful in terms of improving your communication skills, bilingual tech support is often more of a preference than a requirement in the job market. Here’s what some regional recruiting experts had to say about the demand for foreign language skills.

According to Kathy Mattingly, a technical recruiter based in Louisville, KY, “The demand for bilingual skills has been scarce in the Midwest, except for companies that have processing sites in Mexico. Spanish is by far the most requested language. I would say that Japanese is next.”

Laurie Levenson, who specializes in recruiting IT professionals in the San Diego area, put it this way: “My input is based on my regional experience. Knowing a foreign language is helpful if it is a requirement of the job. But in most cases, I find it is not a requirement. English is the common language among software developers worldwide. For call center support specialists, Spanish would be my second choice.”

Jim Scimone is president of Access Technical Staffing, specializing in the recruiting of Information Technology professionals. He has over 20 years experience in IT recruiting as well as having been with IBM as a systems programmer, systems engineer, marketing representative, and product-marketing specialist on the corporate staff.

“Does knowing a foreign language help an IT professional land a job?” I asked. “We deal primarily with companies in Florida but have clients nationally,” Scimone said. “In Florida, particularly in Miami, this can be a real plus. In most cases, it’s not a requirement but a preference.”

Is any particular language requested more than any others? “Spanish, followed by Portuguese,” Scimone said. “Miami-Dade County has a population that is 50 percent Hispanic, and there are many companies that base their Latin American operations here. Spanish is the language of most of Latin America, of course, with Portuguese spoken in Brazil.”

Do you have to relocate to use your foreign language skills? “Occasionally, [IT professionals] will be asked to relocate, but more often they will be based here, and travel periodically to Latin America,” Scimone said. “Companies base their Latin American operations in South Florida for several reasons: the stability of both the U.S. economy and currency, the availability of air transportation to anywhere they need to go, the ease in buying and getting delivery of new technologies, and the proximity to corporate headquarters in New York or San Francisco or wherever.”

So how often, if ever, do your clients request bilingual techies? “Maybe 20 percent of the time,” Scimone said. “For example, I’m currently conducting a search for a Bilingual Network Manager to support the Latin American operations of a Fortune 100 firm, as well as regional sites in Latin America.”

“Keep in mind an important fact: Speaking Spanish or Portuguese in and of itself will not be a major contributor to getting a job,” Scimone said. “The number of bilingual IT candidates in this area is very high, so companies aren’t interested in recruiting and relocating candidates from out of state just because they speak a second language. It’s finding the right skills that comes first.

“I get many calls from other parts of the USA where people believe they will be in great demand in South Florida because they speak Spanish. While that may be a fairly unique skill in another city, they would be one of many in this area. However, if they have an in-demand IT skill and speak Spanish, for example, they would then be unique.”

Express yourself

Has knowing a foreign language (or not knowing one) helped or hindered your career? Post a note below or follow this link to write to Jeff.