New digital roles and how to fill them
How can a CIO ensure candidate competency in disciplines that might be younger than their enterprise applications? JASON WALSH investigates
21 May 2019 | 0
IT roles have always been hard to fill – in some areas like security notoriously so – and Ireland in particular has suffered shortages due to pipeline issues, with computing subjects long conspicuously lacking from the school curriculum. But now that things have changed, they have really changed.
The pipeline issues are being dealt with and IT and computing are now taken more seriously at every level of education, but another change has been the sudden appearance of new methodologies and even entire new disciplines: how can a CIO know who is a good fit for a DevOps environment? Who out there really understands how to develop blockchain? And how can data scientists be recruited if the discipline is so new? Where can I find people trained in AI?
Gerry Doyle, network manager for technology in Ireland at ICT Skillnet said that despite the emergence of new roles and new technologies, the fundamentals remain the place to start looking.
“New skills for emerging technologies have been a challenge for a long time. But software engineering and a sound understanding of mathematics are still at the core of most roles in technology,” he said.
This even applies to the most dazzling and jargon-ridden areas of technology, he said, the ones with all of the promise that no-one is yet quite sure about.
“If you take blockchain as an example, there are few experienced and qualified blockchain specialists ‘round yet, so CIO’s look for developers of all kinds – back-end, front-end and full-stack – to fill the gap at least initially.”
Other things to look for are a solid working knowledge of the kind of development environment used in blockchain projects.
Doyle said competition for the right talent is fierce because, no matter how you slice it, software developers in general are in very high demand. This can result in hiring the wrong people, of course, but Doyle said that skills beyond coding itself can be used as an indication of having found the right person.
“There is a growing focus on adding functional knowledge to the ability to be fluid in your skill sets, provided you have acquired the basics in mathematics and digital competency. Other skills are also important like communication, critical thinking, and decision-making.
“An openness to continue to learn and evolve skills and knowledge is a primary skill in itself. This ability to actively pursue a strategy of lifelong learning is what will set successful employees apart in the future. The desire to upskill oneself and pursue every opportunity to widen your knowledge horizon is the greatest asset a 21st century employee can have,” he said.
Rise of the robots
One person who has been working in a new and innovative area, one loaded with great expectations, is Rebecca Keenan, head of robotic automation service at Expleo Ireland.
For Keenan this area, now the subject of endless newspaper editorials, was relatively new even to her when she joined.
“Essentially it’s creating software robots,” she said. “It’s new enough. I’ve been here for a number of years now.”
Change will be the true constant, she said, and the rise of automation is only one part of that, she said.
“For us a lot of it is about education. Innovation – robots, AI and so on – are going to be the new normal; they’re not [yet] normal today, but they will be soon.”
As a result, finding the right staff is not the only problem: keeping current staff au fait with the latest developments will also become more complicated than ever.
“It’s coming, and if you don’t bring people on that journey there will be problems,” she said.
“There is a challenge in hiring new talent into the company, but also there is one in upskilling the talent that you already have.”
Keenan said that this can be seen in the boardroom already: there has already been a marked change in how business are talking about technologies like automation.
“Three years ago… the conversations I was having with board members three years ago, they were saying ‘Do we need to do this? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t?’ Today they’re saying ‘How do we do this?’”
Of course, there is always some variation in preparedness. Partnering with specialists can help.
Dejan Cusic, business director for Ireland and the UK at Comtrade Digital Services said that different organisations are facing different problems, too.
“In some scenarios there are clients can’t who scale themselves and in others there is a knowledge gap. We see a lot of that,” he said.
Here blockchain, once again, raises its head: a technology widely predicted to be world changing, but also one frequently confused with its most famous, or infamous, implementation in cryptocurrency, blockchain is an object of desire but one that is not well understood.
As an aside, over Easter this reporter was asked to explain how blockchain works and why it was of benefit by a friend who had read a breathless feature on it in the business pages of a newspaper. Multiple attempts to explain it, even using diagrams, failed.
Readers can decide which of us was at fault in this (or perhaps the journalist who wrote the initial feature), but there is a point to this story: if blockchain is so new to people as to be seemingly impenetrable, how can one find developers who can work with it? Or, perhaps more to the point, how can one avoid those who can talk the talk but not quite walk the walk.
This is essential, as blockchain brings with it not only new problems, but new types of problems, said Cusic.
One is that once an application is out there, it really is out there.
“Ethereum is a new blockchain platform, people [in Ireland] are hiring in that. At the most basic level it is very easy to program on that, but then if you deploy one it’s public on the chain, it is much harder to make changes.”
An additional problem is that the very nature of potential problems is effectively unknown.
“The underlying platform is also new, so sometimes you hit an issue or scenario you didn’t think about,” he said.
“It’s not only that the speed of change is accelerating, it’s also that many things at the same time are accelerating, and [as such] they’re multiplying and changing. Technology, programming languages and business are all changing,” he said.
People are there
Siobhan O’Shea is on the sharp end of the problem. Client services director at recruitment company CPL, she is one of the people who has to go out and find the right people for these new roles.
Things really are changing out there, she said: “It’s all part of the fourth industrial revolution.”
CPL was founded three decades ago as Computer Placement Limited, and so the company has been witness to explosive growth in the Irish computing and IT sectors. But this, she says, is different.
If there is a positive to be taken from it, then O’Shea offers that everyone is in the same boat.
“One of the trends of it is that the pace of change is so fast that no-one can keep up with the unrelenting demand,” she said.
O’Shea said – and there is no shortage of evidence for her claim – that one of the questions that people are asking themselves is ‘how long will my job last?’ The answer, or at least the beginnings of an answer, may lie in the question itself.
“The accelerated pace of change in IT and computing is not creating the problem anew; it is just unmasking it”
“Traditional demonstrations of competency still count – third level education, certification and so on – but also look for signs of flexibility and openness”
“By the time you get out of college, within two years your skills will [already] be out of date. What that means, though, is that you have to adopt a creative approach to how you do things,” she said.
This applies to both parties, not only employees seeking to keep the P45 at bay when an individual technology runs out of road.
“You need to be creative, as an employer or even an employee.”
O’Shea sees the new environment into which we are emerging as a net positive, however.
“We think AI and automation won’t destroy jobs but, instead, free us up from routine tasks.
“One of the things you can do is embrace lifelong learning. From an Irish level, we’ve seen how government is supporting it, though the investment in Springboard groups,” she said.
As a business involved in recruitment for IT and computing but also, like all businesses today, itself dependent on IT, CPL, of course, must, as the saying goes, ‘eat its own dogfood’. So how does CPL itself hire internally?
O’Shea said that it was about looking beyond narrow job definitions.
“I spoke to our own CIO about some of the things he does, and he said it was about demonstrating subject matter expertise in the broader sense, and the ability to pick up things on the job and through training.”
That, she said, is a form of protection against change, even when we are unsure what the changes will be.
Readers may remember that former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld was roundly mocked for his comment that there were both “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”. In fact, irrespective of the political agenda, Rumsfeld’s statement that apparently sounded so gnomic to many is a problem that philosophers have been writing about for centuries. And it is a problem for each of us in our daily lives, even if we fail to recognise it: not only can we not predict the future, we cannot even predict what aspects of it will change. Life, after all, has a way of going on in all its infinite complexity regardless of how we might have planned for this or that outcome.
The accelerated pace of change in IT and computing is not creating the problem anew; it is just unmasking it.
“It’s a case of not knowing where things will go,” said O’Shea.
When it comes to putting candidates forward then, O’Shea said that CPL continues to take the traditional demonstrations of competency into account – third level education, certification and so on – but that it also looks for signs of flexibility and openness.
“Having good qualifications does matter, but it’s not everything,” she said.