Success in the IT field is increasingly tied to specialization -- but what particular tech niches are most in demand? Deb Shinder runs through the IT specialties that top the list.
My recent article 10 Ways to become an IT superstar generated a lot of feedback. Quite a few IT pros out there apparently want to increase their visibility (and paychecks). One thing that drew a lot of attention in the piece was the advice to specialize. Okay, readers replied, but what area should I specialize in? They wanted to know which subsets of skills are the easiest to master and/or which ones will deliver the most bang for the buck. So in this follow-up, I'll look at some of the IT specialties that are likely to be in demand in the near future.
Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.
1: To the cloud
You saw this one coming, didn't you? All the major technology companies seem to be "all in" with cloud computing -- Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Dell, CA Technologies, and more. According to recent surveys, at least 50% of organizations are already using some form of cloud computing, and Gartner says the adoption rate is increasing by about 17% per year. According to Dice.com, the number of ads for cloud computing jobs has grown by 344% over the last two years.
2: Virtually speaking
Virtualization has been hot for a while, as companies jumped in to reap the cost and management benefits of consolidating their servers and delivering virtualized desktops and applications to their users. Virtualization is also the foundation of cloud computing, so those with expertise in deploying virtualized IT environments will be in demand both in the public cloud arena and with those organizations that plan to stick with private clouds for now. Dice.com's data showed a 78% growth in the number of jobs related to server virtualization.
3: Mobile computing and consumerization integration
Everyone knows mobile computing is hot. Smartphones and tablets, along with laptops and netbooks, are the driving forces behind the increasing consumerization of enterprise IT. There are plenty of advantages for the company: Because employees are willing to buy their own devices, the organization saves money. Because those employees can stay in touch with work, read and respond to email, view attachments, and create documents no matter where they are, they become more productive.
But when employees purchase their own equipment, the downside is that you lose the standardization that comes with company-issued devices. You end up with many types of devices, made by different hardware vendors, running different operating systems and different apps, configured differently. Getting them to seamlessly connect to the company network can be a challenge. Getting them all connected to the company network without putting the network at risk is even more of a challenge. IT pros who have expertise in integrating these new devices into the network and managing them once they're connected are likely to be in demand by many companies.
Application lifecycle management (ALM) will become increasingly important as the environment becomes more complex with some functions in the cloud and some onsite. Bob Aiello believes configuration management (CM) will evolve into ALM, and the outlook is bright for those with these expanded skills.
4: It's all about the apps
As Toni Bowers reported in a recent blog post, the hottest job category for 2011 (according to CareerCast.com) is that of software engineer. But it's a position that's a bit different from the programmer of yesteryear. On the programming side of the fence, it's all about apps these days. As smartphones and tablets become ubiquitous, companies will need to develop their own specialized apps for those devices -- just as they've needed to develop proprietary software for desktop systems.
In addition, cloud-based applications will be big in the coming years, and that means software engineers will need new skills to design, develop, and implement programs that run in the cloud environment. Those who are familiar with Windows Azure, Google App Engine, VMware's Spring Framework, Force.com, and other cloud development platforms will be a step ahead of the game.
5: Security and compliance
With cybercrime on the rise and increasing concern over the possibility of cyber terrorism and/or cyber warfare, security specialists are likely to continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future. There is a saying in the law enforcement community regarding job security: Thanks to human nature, there will always be criminals -- and thus, there will always be a need for the police. That same dark side of human nature ensures that there will always be those who misuse computer technology to attack, intrude, and otherwise attempt to do harm to computer systems. That means there will always be a need for computer and network security specialists.
In addition, more and more government regulation of the Internet and networks, as well as regulatory provisions concerning data privacy, mean security is no longer optional for most organizations. Those who specialize in regulatory compliance are likely to see their job prospects increase as more industries come under the regulatory umbrella.
6: Four to six
When the IPv4 address pool was created in the 1980s, it was thought that the more than 4.2 billion unique addresses possible under the system would be enough. However, the creators didn't foresee the Internet boom or the possibility that one day, we would be connecting not just multiple computers per person, but printers, phones, and even household appliances to the Internet. This month (February 2011), IANA announced that it has allocated the last batch of remaining IPv4 addresses.
The solution to the problem has been around for a while: IPv6. The new version of the Internet Protocol supports a whopping 340 undecillion (2 to the 128th power) addresses. But IPv6 deployment is not an easy task; working with it requires learning a whole new IP language. IPv6 addresses don't even look like their IPv4 counterparts; they're notated in hexadecimal instead of dotted quad. IPv6 is also much more sophisticated than IPv4, with many new features (including built-in security mechanisms). Most important, IPv6 does not interoperate with IPv4, so transition technologies are required to get IPv4 networks to communicate with IPv6 networks.
Obviously, now that we've reached the end of the available IPv4 addresses, more and more organizations will be forced to migrate to IPv6. Because of the complexity, there is a shortage of IT personnel who have mastered and really understand IPv6. If you're one of the few, the proud, who specializes in this area, you're likely to have plenty of business in the upcoming years.
7: Business intelligence
Business intelligence (BI) refers to technologies that are used for reporting and analyzing data, including recognizing trends and patterns, to make better strategic business decisions. BI uses techniques such as data mining to extract and identify patterns and correlations in large amounts of data.
According to a recent study of midsize organizations that was done by IBM, BI/analytics is the second most popular IT investment (after infrastructure) that companies have planned for 2011. This indicates that specializing in the BI field can be a lucrative strategy and a good investment in your future.
8: The social network
Social networking started as a consumer-driven technology, but the use of social media is now being embraced in a big way by businesses. It can be used to connect with customers, colleagues, and partners to build solid business relationships. That doesn't mean you'll automatically be a hot property on the job market just because you tweet and update your Facebook page regularly. But it does mean organizations are looking for people who know how to integrate social media into the business environment in a way that furthers the goals of the organization.
Many companies are looking to develop their own social sites that give them more control and let them target their audiences more precisely. Specialists in social media are sure to find many opportunities as more and more companies stop seeing social sites as just time-wasters that should be blocked and start to recognize the potential for business use. This article offers more information about exactly what a social media specialist does.
9: Public sector computing
On the one hand, many state and local governments are cutting back on their budgets and laying off personnel. On the other hand, governmental agencies are depending more and more on technology to perform their functions more efficiently with fewer personnel. That means specialists in public sector computing can likely find a home in one of the many thousands of town, city, county, state, or federal government agencies that exist in the United States alone.
Although salaries for government jobs are often smaller than those in the private sector, they sometimes offer better benefits, more time off, and a less pressured work environment. There are a number of IT subspecialties in the public sector, as well. These include computer forensics investigators, criminalistics analysts, and personnel who specialize in secure mobile communications technologies for public service agencies.
10: To your health
The healthcare industry is in a state of flux in the United States. Government mandates are predicted to result in cost reduction measures that may result in personnel cuts and/or discourage young people from entering medicine. At the same time, the baby boomer generation is aging and requiring health care. Technology may be one way to fill the gap.
An IDC report published late last year showed that the U.S. healthcare market for IT was valued at $34 billion and was predicted to increase by 24% over the next three years. That translates into a demand for software developers and IT professionals who understand the healthcare industry and its special needs and who know how to integrate technology into the caregiver's world without dumping a steep learning curve onto people already working in an understaffed and overworked environment.