Global CIO: General Motors CIO On 4 Essential IT Skills

He'd like to hire people with all 4 into the new GM. But how can IT pros get this broad experience?

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

December 9, 2009

6 Min Read

When InformationWeek met with General Motors' IT leadership recently, CIO Terry Kline laid out four broad skills he thinks a well-rounded IT pro should have. His thinking shows that deep tech chops still are highly valued. Yet the road looks tougher than ever to become this particular kind of IT superstar.

"I've always broke IT into four areas," explains Kline. Those areas are:

1. Software development: You've written code.

2. Operations: You've backed up servers, installed operating systems, reloaded a router. Bottom line: "You know how to keep the lights on," Kline says.

3. Architect: You know how to do jobs such as put in multiple servers with high availability and failover, you know how to deal with volume shadowing, you understand when it's best to stripe and disc and not. Etc.

4. Databases: This factors into all the others, but Kline makes it its own category to settle the argument over which one it goes in.

Kline figures it takes about 15 years to gain sufficient experience in all four disciplines. He'd like to bring more of those people into the new GM. Says Kline, who took over as CIO in October:

"Individuals that have spent time in all four areas are highly valuable. They work really well in our outsourced model--mostly because most people in IT have not worked in all four areas. If you have someone who's written code, who's worked in servers, done architecture, who knows something about databases -- they're a very valuable asset. They're good mediators, too."

Understand, GM is one of the most outsourced IT organizations in the world--90% of its IT is done by IT service providers. A company with more than 200,000 employees, it has about 1,500 full-time IT employees. Kline's not changing that outsourced model, but he's looking to bring in a small number of these more all-purpose IT pros.

These people thrive, particularly in an outsourced IT operation, because they can broker between, say, the app dev and data center operations teams if they can't agree on what's causing a problem. They can't be buffaloed on the technology. Perhaps just as important, if there's an emergency, they can be the paramedic--fix a problem well enough that the patient survives until there's time for a specialist to do a more elegant repair.

Two things strike me about this kind of IT superstar.

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One is what a premium it puts on pure tech chops. At a time when we hear about technology being a commodity, about business units self-provisioning from the cloud and working around IT, about IT pros chasing hot skills to stay ahead of offshore outsourcing, this view puts a premium on hands-on, broad-based, operational IT skills.

Two is how hard it will be for IT pros to develop this portfolio of knowledge. IT pros have proven their adaptability and resilience, weathering their second brutal recession of the decade. They took an outsized share of professional job losses in the 2002-2003 downturn. While IT unemployment today's comparable to other professional fields (comparably bad), there's extreme volatility today in what skills are valued, finds Foote Research, which publishes quarterly surveys on IT skills and the premiums, if any, employers pay for them.

Few people watch IT job movements more closely than Foote. Says David Foote, CEO and head of research, in a report on 3Q hiring trends:

"What is happening is employers honing in on the skills they most critically need, not on people and jobs. First they identify the work, then the hard skills they need to get that work done. They look around for the people who have these skills, both inside and outside their company, and at what expertise level. Next they shift finite resources very quickly toward retaining and building—or renting---those skills and workers, and just as rapidly away from resources they no longer need. And that’s unusual, because workforce reshuffling in response to business decisions used to take months but now it’s happening in weeks and even days, hence the short-term volatility we’re seeing in skills pay and demand. The big layoffs are over for now and the action has shifted to rapid specialized skills acquisition and selective hiring."

Foote holds out the possibility companies will build those skills in-house. And some companies continue to offer career paths that let people stay on a tech track and build broad skills. But with companies' ruthless attention to skills that Foote describes, and their sense of urgency, IT pros are rightfully wary of being able to build a skills portfolio with one organization.

Is this skills-focused ruthlessness by companies a short-term blip, perhaps passing with the downturn? Not if employers take Foote's counsel:

"This is really the way employers should always operate. But in good times they tend to staff up, hang on too long to the wrong people, and find themselves regularly out of synch with skills requirements. The recession is forcing them to be more lean, nimble, reactive, and bottom-line in their human capital strategies. It would be wise to continue this post recession. Perhaps the positive aspect of corporate economic trauma---being compelled by circumstances into organizational changes that will have benefits long after their economic pain subsides."

To build that well-rounded skills mix GM's Kline describes, IT pros will need similarly brutal assessments of whether employers are giving them the chance to round out their skills. Easier said than done in this stagnant job market, when opportunities are tight and hiring managers want you to replicate exactly what you did at your last job, not move into a new area. Plus, more companies outsource entire skill sets, such as app dev or IT operations. IT pros will likely need a stint at an IT services company to get this range of skills.

IT pros can be forgiven for feeling like they're asked to do the impossible. Get deep technical knowledge, but don't get too specialized. Move around to round out your skills, but be sure to build depth in one industry, so you can marry tech to nuanced business needs.

The framework GM's CIO Kline sketches, of the well-rounded, hands-on tech expert, is of course only one of many IT career paths, and it's not an easy one. But professionals still standing in the IT business learned long ago that none of the paths are.

About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

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