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Time for a radical approach to tackle the IT skills shortage

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Trueffelpix)

Saying “there’s an IT skills shortage” is perhaps the ultimate truism; it’s so widely accepted that it’s no longer considered worth discussing. However, that won’t solve the problem, and after seeing the consequences every day at customer sites I believe we need to take a fresh look at the causes and consider radical solutions

In my view, tackling the issue requires a major strategic and cultural change. It’s time for organisations to stop competing for a limited resource (i.e. individuals with the exact skills they need) and address the problem in a different way. Instead, they should recruit for aptitude and mindset, and provide training in the skills they lack, while managers should be chosen for their ability to coach and guide as well as their technical knowledge. Unless they do this, they will need to use IT consultants to fill the gaps in their skills base.

This may seem to be putting a huge burden on IT managers. However, consider how the problem has arisen, and it becomes the only logical conclusion.

There are two key reasons that the skills shortage has become significantly worse in recent years: the rapid rate of change of IT, and budget cuts, which have left in-house teams with little or no time for strategic thinking.

In-house teams don’t have time to learn new skills

The problem I see in most organisations I visit is that technology has moved on, but the skills of in-house teams have not changed at the same rate. This isn’t the fault of individuals – they simply don’t have the bandwidth to do anything outside their existing responsibilities. Typically each of them will have a specific area of expertise, such as networking, endpoint devices, security etc., which they use to run business as usual (BAU) effectively and which occupies all of their time and efforts. Teams are invariably short-staffed, giving them no scope - mental or physical - to learn new skills, even those which are currently lacking within their organisation. So to get involved in new technologies that might help the business move forward, or to carry out project work, such as migration to new systems, is an even bigger stretch.

Meanwhile CIOS and IT managers have less time to spend on actually managing IT, as their focus has to be on retaining and recruiting staff. It is increasingly difficult to retain good technical staff as there are so many opportunities available; IT is definitely an employee’s market. So many IT leaders are becoming people managers, rather than technology innovators, with minimal time for strategic research and planning. Opportunities to provide training to their existing staff are limited, and they find themselves trying to motivate people to take online courses, often in their own time, just to maintain their existing skills and certifications.

Promotion through the ranks does occur, but at a much slower rate than in the past. Part of the problem is that there are fewer skilled people to learn from. Some of the gap may be bridged by online training, but does not address the gap in practical experience, and typically leads to vanilla configurations which are not optimised for the specific business requirements. So either employees are given inflated job titles in excess of their capabilities but which give the impression to the outside world that the skills are there, or they remain at the same level, handling BAU.

This situation leaves organisations open to less scrupulous suppliers pushing their own agenda, rather than making sure that a customer gets a solution that actually meets their needs. At a strategic level, organisations need learned experience, which is in short supply. Many vendors purport to have the perfect product, but unless you have the knowledge to ask the right questions and look beyond the hype you may find that their solution is less than ideal. And with suppliers themselves suffering from a lack of technical staff, their sales teams are increasingly focused on achieving targets rather than offering the most appropriate technical solutions tailored to individual needs. It’s a vicious circle and it seems to be getting worse. 

Training is not keeping up with new technology

Is the solution to increase the number of students on IT courses? Possibly - but only if they are learning the right skills. We find that more recent recruits to IT are familiar with APIs and GUIs but lack the more technical skills such as CLIs which are needed to make this ‘simpler’ IT work. For example, they are familiar with cloud and can work comfortably with technologies such as Microsoft Azure, but they don’t understand what is beneath the surface. It may be easier to provision a server using Azure than using PowerShell, but the more complex IT behind this still needs scripting, which requires appropriate skills. IP address structures are not being taught or understood, but these are essential in order to comprehend the underlying infrastructure. So there is both a skills gap and a knowledge gap.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult for traditional university courses to keep up with the rapid changes in technology. First the lecturer has to understand it, which may take time if they’re not using it every day; then they may take a year to develop material and get it onto the syllabus, creating a two year gap at best.

And of course the vendors themselves can suddenly change their approach for their own reasons.  It took Microsoft more than 20 years to convince IT technicians and the world that a GUI was much better than a command line because it was easier for the majority to use. Recently they made a 180 degree turn and switched to PowerShell commands rather than via a GUI. Why? Because it is faster, and can be scripted and hence automated, so is much more efficient. There are aspects of configuration of the newest Microsoft products that cannot be performed via a GUI. For example, connecting the Sentinel and Fusion products has to be completed via PowerShell, and the new Windows Virtual desktop can only be set up using PowerShell (although apparently a GUI version is on the way).

The vendors are trying to address this by providing online training, but unless you know what to look for it is not easy to find. For example, cloud vendors (especially Microsoft) are producing vast quantities of material on their latest products, but this has to be widely accessed and then each person has to make it relevant to their own organisation. However, vendor material will not point out potential traps, and some of the performance figures are pure fiction. So it is easy for the unsuspecting to implement a solution that works well in a test environment but is not up to the task in a production system.

Vendors encourage users to address this by buying more. An example is Sentinel, the latest SIEM system from Microsoft. This is “free” for ingressing cloud-based logs for analysis, although on-premise systems are charged. However, syslog files can be massive, and organisations will want to ensure they inspect syslogs from all systems in one place, so will have to ingest multiple, potentially very large files and incur significant costs. 

Recruit for aptitude, not specific skills

In my view, it’s time that we all stopped competing for the limited resource of individuals with the exact skills to fill a specific vacancy. In doing this we’ve already created a (lower budget) version of the situation we see in the Premier League – a small number of organisations with deep pockets who are able to pay large sums to recruit and retain the very best, while everyone else is forced to operate at a different level. In IT, banks and other high spending sectors are able to recruit the cream of the crop. Councils and NHS organisations simply can’t compete, so are left with less skilled candidates unless they can leverage other methods (e.g. work-like balance) to recruit quality personnel, who will remain with the organisation after gaining experience. With the current shift to cloud-based solutions, even the medium sized organisations are now struggling and are having to rely on trying to upskill people or using third party organisations. 

I believe organisations should start recruiting for aptitude and mindset, and be prepared to train staff in the skills they need. This provides a career path and promotion opportunities for those who are willing to learn – both new recruits and existing staff who want to expand their knowledge. It will also become increasingly necessary as technology moves on at an ever faster rate. Who knows what language the apps of the future will be written in?

This approach also means finding managers with the ability to coach and encourage. Perhaps we will soon see two parallel tracks in IT leadership – the technical gurus and the people managers – as the traditional IT expert is not noted for his or her people skills! In the meantime, IT consultants will continue to fill the gaps. This can still provide the first steps towards change – by choosing suppliers who also provide skills transfer as part of a project, organisations can begin the process of upskilling their workforce.

Drew Markham, Service Strategist, Fordway

Drew is an IT strategist with nearly 40 years’ experience of delivering real-world technological solutions. He has worked on significant infrastructure projects across a wide variety of business sectors.