Recently, I was asked to comment on “…what skills IT practitioners should plan to learn or improve as we head into 2021.” While a few of those thoughts appeared online I wanted to provide a bit more detail and context here.
Before digging in, you should know I’ll answer this question twice. The second answer will be the IT-centric one everyone expects to hear. But the first answer is, in my opinion, more honest, accurate, and relevant:
The top in-demand tech skills for 2021 are going to include things which can be learned (contrary to the opinion of some) but are notably different and more difficult than “mastering regular expressions.” Learning these skills often requires a change in how we view and respond to events. The difficulty to learn translates to an equivalent challenge to test for mastery. It will be difficult (if not impossible) to prove you have these skills during a job interview. As is so often the case, these hard-to-acquire skills will likely stick with us for the rest of our lives and serve us in a variety of contexts.
That’s what makes them so worthwhile to learn, no matter where you are in your career journey.
2021 will require IT professionals to have grit. The ability to be patient would not go amiss either. People working in tech in 2021 will need a level of resilience bordering on anti-fragility. A well-developed sense of humor is always useful, and in 2021 it will be an essential contributor to personal and organizational success. Topping off my list of critical 2021 skills, I’d note “self-deprecating humor” isn’t a requirement but sure would be a nice-to-have.
Augmenting those abilities is what I’ll call the ability to “pivot without regret”—being able to quickly change priorities, shift goals, and move to different projects with little or no notice. I’m not talking about multi-tasking or time management. I mean the equilibrium so as not to waste any energy fretting about the time spent on the previous (and now un-necessary) task.
Hand-to-heart, that’s honestly my view of what skills will matter to IT practitioners in the coming year. The reasoning should be self-evident. However, as I said earlier, it’s hard to demonstrate or provide evidence of these skills. No matter how essential we might know them to be, you can’t produce a CompTIA certification for “Certified Resilience Engineer” to show hiring managers. Which is why I’m also including some more technically verifiable skills suggestions.
First—and I’ve spoken and written about this before—I think all IT pros, regardless of their sub-specialty, should develop “a sense of code.” I got this concept when my daughter was in elementary school and my wife and I fretted about her math skills. A teacher said “at this age, we don’t need them to do math perfectly. We just need them to have a ‘sense of numbers’—the intuitive understanding that 7+9 is going to be something larger than 9. That’s the essential building block we need to take them further when they’re ready.”
Similarly, my suggesting IT pros develop “a sense of code” isn’t the same as asking everyone to “become a programmer.” It’s more accurate to say you need to “understand code only at the level where you can look at a block of code and have a solid idea of what it’s trying to do—whether or not you understand what every line of that code is doing.” To be sure, learning to code is nice. But nobody should believe all IT pros in 2021 need to pivot into being full-stack DevOps engineers.
My next suggestion recognizes how the move to include cloud in enterprise infrastructure (note that I didn’t say “move systems to the cloud”—businesses aren’t moving, they’re expanding) continues its inexorable pace. So, I’ll add “develop a sense of cloud.” This means having the ability to translate things we understood on-premises into cloud. Is routing materially different? How is storage handled? Does RAID 5 even exist as a thing? Do I need to worry about power-supplies with regard to compute workload? And so on.
Equally importantly is the need to understand of what mattered on-prem but doesn’t in the cloud—heat, electricity, and licensing for example; and what wasn’t as much of a focus in the NOC, but generates the most cost in cloud—compute, storage, and service are three examples that leap to mind.
Finally—and perhaps most importantly—tech pros in 2021 will want the ability (and willingness) to find ways to see things from the end user’s (whether they’re customers or colleagues) perspective. This means new, expanded, or more robust means of monitoring and tracing. Because, once this insight is achieved, issues can be resolved with this point of view in mind.
“But what about Python, Leon? What about getting an AWS certification? Or making sure I’m fluent on the latest version of Windows? How about diving into a book on serverless? Or Lambda functions? Or Kubernetes?”
Those are great things, and if they interest you, I would absolutely support your exploration of them. But that’s not the thing that will spell out success in the coming year. In 2021, IT professionals are going to have a lot of building—and not a small amount of re-building—to do. We’ll need to do a lot of intense introspection to determine what’s truly important to us as companies, as tech teams, and as individuals.
We may even be surprised by what we discover, when we do. The skills we’ll need to capitalize on those discoveries are likely not going to be found in a book on PowerShell scripting or SQL query optimization.