Personal Skills for Computing Professionals

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  • COMPUTER 112

    THE PROFESSION

    Published by the IEEE Computer Society 0018-9162/09/$26.00 2009 IEEE

    Personal Skills for Computing Professionals

    In a discipline as technical as computer science, still speed-ily evolving behind a wall of bewildering initialisms, the really decisive factor remains a focus on people. This lesson had to be learned early on in computer security, and many techniquessuch as firewalls, antivirus devices, and cryptographic methodshave been employed with varying degrees of success.

    Ultimately, though, methods of hacking succeed best when they exploit the human factor in a Graham Greene style, tricking people into revealing keywords or taking unsafe actions. Fans of technology, espe-cially the geeks or nerds who do the hacking, came to recognize that everything is measured in terms of the human being, as Leonardo da Vinci famously observed.

    COMPUTING EMPLOYMENTWhen dealing with computing pro-

    fessional profiles, we can identify an evident parallelism of this attitude by perusing the results of different labor market analyses and studies of com-puting. On one hand, great effort has been devoted to determining if pro-gramming language x is the market leader, and thus the one that should

    be learned to acquire the best jobs. In many cases, ranking various tech-nologies tends to reflect commercial or market interests, even for free and open source software, or to confirm personal preferences.

    On the other hand, fields like software engineering, where the participation of computing profes-sionals as developers determines the main part of the effort and cost, tend to concentrate much more attention on technical topics than human fac-tors. Many other areas of computing simply ignore the latter.

    Using a different approach, some studies reveal that computing profes-sionals frequently lack awareness of the need to develop their own skills as they relate to the business world, such as key aspects of organizational life and the ability to attract managers support, which can only be acquired by speaking and understanding busi-ness language and jargon.

    For example, a study commis-sioned by a Spanish private university analyzed the social and organizational image of professional graduates in various fields. This study found that computing people tend to be con-sidered technically competent and efficient, but were seen as outliers in the game of influence within their

    organization. They typically work in places close to data processing centers, far away from the luxurious offices of top management. In general, human resources specialists tend to believe that computing people must improve their interpersonal competence.

    COMPUTING SKILLSIn the area of human resources,

    competencies management has been the rage for the past several years. This approach highlights general personal skills as the key for success in any discipline of the professional world.

    Different studies have developed lists of what employers, or what people in charge of HR or the main areas of company management, think are the most adequate abilities for high performance in almost every area of business action. Words like teamwork, leadership, and creativity have been touted as desired talents. Relating these concepts to computing professionals is the challenge.

    There are, however, many sig-nificant analysis documents that cover the need for computing com-petencies. For example, in 2008, the International Federation for Informa-tion Processing (IFIP; www.ifip.org)

    Luis Fernndez-Sanz, University of Alcal

    Technical expertise will always be important for computing professionals, but developing the personal skills that make such knowledge useful is also vital.

    Continued on page 110

  • COMPUTER 110

    THE PROFESSION

    0 2 4 6 8 10 12Job oers (percent)

    CIOs (123 ads)Programmers (279 ads)

    Customer-oriented

    Decision making

    Analysis capacity

    HR management

    Management capacity

    Communication skills

    Teamwork

    Leadership

    Team management

    Proactive behavior

    Figure 1. Comparison of personal skills for CIOs and programmers as a percent of offers that mention each item.

    published Characteristics of the IT Profession and IT Professionals, v3.0, which included a Skills Framework for the Information Age. IFIP consid-ers skills such as influence capacity, complexity management, and auton-omy essential for professionals.

    This study type has the common characteristic of mainly generating Delphic methods through interviews or questionnaires that involve experts. Their conclusions are not, however, an evident basis for empirical quan-titative data underlying the rationale.

    RENTICRegularly since 1998, and less reg-

    ularly since 1993, the Requirements for Employment in ICT (RENTIC) series of studies on computing job requirements has analyzed the req-uisite qualities employers include for candidates in job advertisements published by the main national news-papers in Spain. RENTIC addresses eight areas of technical knowledge or expertise: databases, program-ming languages, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and environments, communications, hardware, software engineering, operating systems, and a miscellaneous area. RENTIC also includes three additional aspects: degrees and educational require-

    ments, foreign languages, and personal skills and conditions.

    Statistical surveyRequirements for job applicants

    are determined by analyzing descrip-tions in job advertisements. The main difference between ours and other studies is the results quantitative foundation, which rests on data from about 3,000 different offers of specific computing jobs.

    One evident result of RENTIC is the high number of different positions for computing jobsmore than 250 in areas such as software development and systems management. Further, new jobs are always appearing, con-firming one researchers observations (J. Liu, Computing as an Evolving Dis-cipline: 10 Observations, Computer, May 2007, pp. 110-112). This is a clear symptom of computings fast evolu-tion and the growth of its application to business, social, and personal life.

    Also highly evident are the variety of areas that advertise computing jobs, although the main source of employ-ment recorded in the database lies in computing services companies: 41.3 percent. Almost all types of organiza-tions require computing professionals, whether nongovernmental, consul-tancy, or industrial firms.

    Data goldmineOver the years, RENTIC data has

    confirmed the evolution from tradi-tional environmentsin particular those related to Euro adoption and Y2K effectsto Internet-age sys-tems. Also noticeable are social effects like the creation, disappear-ance, or renaming of technology and commercial trademarks. This trend highlights the need for life-long learn-ing as well as the importance of solid technical foundations that might let professionals efficiently embrace new technologies as they emerge in their environment.

    Obviously, the technical profile sought depends heavily on the posi-tion being advertised. If we outline the profile of a recent position for a typical software analyst by giving the two most mentioned items in each category, from data acquired since January 2006, the results would be as follows:

    Programming languages: Java and Cobol and, for programmers, JAVA and .NET

    Software engineering: UML and software analysis methods

    Databases: Oracle and DB2 ERP and environments: SAP and

    ABAP Communicat ions : CICS and

    Websphere Operating systems: Unix and

    Windows (in general) Hardware: Host Miscellaneous: Security and CRM

    Technology concerns aside, per-sonal skills remain the hallmark of success. It is tempting but difficult to answer the question of which personal skills are most important for a computing professional. The most valuable skills clearly depend on the position. Thus for chief information officers or equivalent positions, the required personal skills differ from those for a pro-grammer, as the comparison in Figure 1 shows.

    Continued from page 112

  • Editor: Neville Holmes, School of Computing and Information Systems, University of Tasmania; neville.holmes@utas.edu.au

    111OCTOBER 2009

    COMPARATIVE ANALYSISSome 37 percent of offers for CIOs

    required at least one personal skill, whereas only 16 percent of those intended for programmers did. In the case of analysts, the percentage was 25 percent. In general, personal skills have figured more often in the descriptions of job requirements. During 2006 and 2007, they were present in 27.6 percent of the total, but from 2002 to 2005, they were present in only 13.4 percent.

    Many people might think these skills are not exclusive to comput-ing professionals but are common to engineers generally. Although not an aim of the RENTIC studies, the firm conducted an analysis of personal skills based on a smaller sample of job advertisements for other types of engineers during 2005 and 2006.

    The results showed that similar personal skills were sought, with dif-ferent levels of importance allocated to them in the three types of general engineering branches considered: industrial engineering, encompass-ing a wide range of specialties such as mechanics, electronics, electricity, automation, and energy; communi-cations engineering in areas such as radio, voice, signal, and physical sup-port of networks; and computing.

    Table 1 shows the results for the three types. The presence of creativ-

    ity and the absence of management capacity in the computing profile reinforces the idea of the persistence of special engineers engaged in cre-ating and solving technical tasks but reluctant to deal with corporate man-agement life. Maybe movie images of computing freaks still influence the professional environment, even when dealing with job requirements.

    For the foreseeable future, successful computing pro-fessionals will need personal skills. Technical expertise will be important, but developing the personal skills that make such knowl-edge useful, both in organizations and society, will be even more impor-tant. The era of socially unskilled computing experts must give way to a new era in which computing people can influence society and help guide its course.

    Much more effort should be made to collect additional data. Besides opinions, the curricula for under-graduates must be rethought with life-long learning programs in mind (N. Harkiolakis, Incorporating a Variable-Expertise-Level System in IT Course Modules, Computer, Apr. 2007, pp. 114-116).

    Personal skills should take their place in educational programs with a precise vision of the specific skills

    profiles for each target position. ACM Curricula, for example, has included proposals for different ideas and recommendations that referred to nontechnical skills as far back as 2001.

    However, two final concerns must be taken into consideration going for-ward. First, considering that women remain a minority in computing, a more balanced gender representa-tion might result in a new soft skills perspective. Second, considering general experiences in multinational and multicultural environments, soft skills could provide universal ben-efits but might also be adapted across differing settings.

    Luis Fernndez-Sanz is a member of the Association of Technical Informa-tions executive board (www.ati.es) as well as member of IEEE Computer Society and an assistant professor at the University of Alcal. Contact him at luis.fernandezs@uah.es.

    Table 1. Comparison of personal skills for three general branches of engineering.Profile Skill Percent Profile Skill Percent Profile Skill Percent

    Industrial (Sample: 97)

    Management capacity 9.2

    Communi- cations(Sample: 125) Teamwork 11.8

    Computing(Sample: 1311) Teamwork 10.0

    Proactivity 8.2Customer- oriented 10.2

    Customer- oriented 7.0

    Teamwork 6.2 Proactivity 9.4 Proactivity 6.7

    Customer oriented 6.2

    Team management 8.7

    Communication skills 5.8

    HR management 4.1 Results-oriented 6.3 Results-oriented 4.6

    Planning 4.1Management capacity 5.5 Creativity 4.1

    Negotiation skills 4.1

    Communication skills 3.9

    Autonomy/independence

    4.0

    Communication skills 4.1 Analysis capacity 3.1 Analysis capacity 3.7

    Selected CS articles and columns are available

    for free at http://ComputingNow.computer.org

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