by Paul Heltzel

The 9 most difficult IT hires today

Mar 10, 2020
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

The IT talent gap is driving up demand for skilled IT pros, but for certain roles and skillsets, finding — and signing — the right candidate can feel a bit like trying to capture a unicorn.

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CIOs are quick to point out that every company is essentially a technology firm, and demand for a broad range of skills has created a race for talent. 

The emergence of interactive technology such as augmented reality and virtual reality have made jobs in those areas a hot ticket. AR/VR developers are currently the most difficult positions to fill, according to, with 1,400 percent growth in demand for in 2019.

That spike may be short lived, however. “Right now, filling AR/VR engineering positions can be challenging,” says Hired CEO Mehul Patel. “This mirrors the 517 percent growth in demand for blockchain engineers that we saw in 2018, which then normalized to 9 percent growth this year. So I expect we’ll see a similar normalization with AR/VR engineering demand, which will make these roles less difficult to fill.”

Staffing firm Robert Half Technology reports that while 67 percent of hiring managers plan to expand their IT teams, nearly 90 percent say they’re having a hard time finding candidates with the necessary skills. Here we look at some of the hardest hires in technology, from standbys such as security and web engineers, to quickly evolving technology roles such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.   

Cloud roles

Cloud architects, network and systems administrators, and security pros are some of the hardest positions to fill currently, according Jim Johnson, senior vice president of Robert Half Technology. “Any roles having to do with cloud security, including security admins and security architects, are in very high demand and have multiple opportunities chasing them. There are around 10 jobs open for every available cloud security candidate, and even higher demand exists for engineers and architects,” Johnson says.

Over the past year, full-stack web engineers and DevOps engineers were the hardest roles to fill at Muly Gottlieb’s firm, Cloudshare, where he’s vice president of research and development. “I assume 2020 will look similar,” Gottlieb says, and he predicts stiff competition hiring cloud-related positions in AI and big data.

As enterprise cloud technology matures, there’s a growing need for — and limited supply of — tech workers with native cloud skills.

“This isn’t just about moving to the cloud but adapting processes and organizations to take advantage of the unique aspects of cloud,” says Joe Beda, CTO of Heptio, and formerly of Google’s cloud VM service. “Job candidates that are going to be the most effective and in demand are those that have not only mastered the new emerging technologies around cloud native, but also have the grounding and people skills to effectively work to move the larger organization forward.”

AI and data scientists

Albert Brown, senior vice president of engineering at Veritone, says increasingly sophisticated AI tools are providing better data for making business decisions. And recruiting AI talent means threading the needle of finding the right skills in a person who also knows how to solve your business problems. 

“Data scientists and practitioners add value to their companies by identifying how to provide AI solutions that benefit customers or lead to more business,” Brown says. “Data scientists need to develop soft skills, like emotional intelligence and communication, to better work alongside team members who don’t have deep technical knowledge and understand the problems they can solve together. Business can’t look for just the technically experienced applicant for the role, but rather, vet their problem-solving skills.”

Chad Kidder, global head of talent at ElectrifAi, echoes the need for AI and data analytics talent and recognizes that hiring for diversity can help overcome inherent problems with the technology. 

“A major focus for us is hiring people who are able to bring diverse perspectives to our company,” Kidder says. “This allows our products to solve issues that are prevalent in our field, such as bias, and enables our company to navigate difficult issues product-users are facing.

Hybrid roles

Because of the need to master multiple skills, hybrid roles, such as embedded data scientists, enterprise architects, and software architects, are hard to recruit and land, says Javier Polit, a board member of Quick Base, and former CIO of Proctor and Gamble.

“These roles require not only deep technical mastery and business domain knowledge but also soft skills and emotional IQ. These hybrid skill sets are unique and represent the growing movement for technical professionals to be more deeply aligned with business needs,” Polit says. “Traditionally, these roles haven’t required someone to be equally strong on both sides.”

Because of this, companies need to be more strategic about their recruiting efforts, Polit says, and build qualified diverse talent pipelines. Here, Polit suggests working directly with universities to fill the talent gap.

“When you partner with a university, you can help them build out a curriculum that ensures their students have the right technical knowledge and skills to make them more marketable while also addressing demand in various technical disciplines,” he says. “University partnerships also give you the opportunity to directly recruit from a pool of the best and brightest graduates.”

IT architects

IT architects who can manage an increasingly complex stack designed for enterprise-grade applications, including mainframes and microservices, are also in high demand, says Kris Beevers, CEO at NS1. 

“Organizations have a greater need for knowledge and skills to fully understand and unlock the strategic potential of fundamental tools for managing and connecting distributed systems, such as IP address management and DNS,” Beevers says. “Organizations continue to seek ways to improve the scale and velocity of their application-driven businesses. We’ll see them building entire ‘traffic’ teams to manage this function as an important part of the DevOps arsenal. As a result, these skills will make candidates more competitive and attractive to enterprise IT teams.”

The killer combo: Emerging tech + business sense

While skills and experience in emerging areas such as machine learning, IoT and blockchain are desirable, the true unicorns are candidates who not only have these skills but also keep an eye on the bottom line. 

“The challenge is not only finding individuals with the skills but people who can connect the dots to create business impact,” says Harley Lippman, founder and CEO of IT staffing firm Genesis10. “Finding true data scientists continues to be a challenge. Companies have focused on getting their arms around their data and their disparate systems.  Now the focus is on how to exploit the data to improve business decision-making and to create competitive advantage.”

Penetration testers with a scientific mind-set

In some areas, finding the right tech skills is less of an issue than finding candidates with problem-solving chops. For example, cyber security skills are in high demand but so is a proactive mindset, making high-value penetration testers hard to come by.

“Many testers can run tools, find bugs, and even exploit them,” says Doug Barbin, principal cyber security analyst at Schellman & Co. “If you can’t take that finding and translate into a clear statement of risk and threat, those reports also become noise and may drive the wrong action or inaction. The perpetual student or scientist — always looking for new challenges and ways to do things — are the types of soft skills that are not always common but worth their weight in gold when you find them.”

Security auditors with deep investigation chops

Security auditors are another position where hiring managers say they’re having trouble finding candidates.

“You can recruit people with depth in cloud and virtualization technologies, Linux operating platforms, and network and security technologies,” Barbin says. “But if they don’t have the skills to interview developers, evaluate control sets, ask tough questions — and more importantly — document their findings coherently, whatever expertise they have in the underlying technology is ultimately discarded.”

Tech translators

A number of recruiters tell us they’re having a particularly difficult time finding IT managers who can speak to non-tech staff, says Elisha Thompson, Philadelphia branch manager for IT staffing at Addison Group.

“It’s difficult to find candidates who can go into any type of business environment and thrive,” she says. “This is especially true among cybersecurity and DevOps roles where business culture plays a big role in professional development.”

DevOps engineers — and other agile, adaptable developers

The need for tech workers with DevOps experience is nothing new. Yet organizations say they’re having trouble finding talent for this vital role.

“As DevOps gained visibility, because of its enormous cost-saving abilities as a department — along with the streamlining of infrastructure — many companies are looking for this skillset with little or no success,” says Giancarlo DiVece, president of Unosquare. “Most talent has fallen into DevOps by mistake, and then they find themselves learning it on the job.”

It’s especially hard to build a DevOps team that can be flexible as the role evolves, says Sarah Lahav, CEO of SysAid Technologies.

“We’ve attracted quite a few talented candidates in the last few years who have unique skills,” says Lahav. “That said, we’re still finding it challenging to locate agile people who have experience concentrating on DevOps. In general, the employees that are currently the most difficult to find are agile IT candidates that have the skills to change and accommodate change based on real feedback.”

Mathieu Nebra, co-founder of OpenClassrooms, agrees that employees with agile experience is one thing, but finding true agility is more daunting.

“Any person engrained in tech can follow the same steps to succeeding at a project or solving a problem, but one of the most difficult — and hardest to teach — skills is true agility. Of course it’s important to find a person who has skills in, for example, a programming language like Python, but these days it’s crucial to find the person who has these skills and who will be able to learn, adapt and evolve if other digital skills are needed,” Nebra says.

How to find your unicorn

The trick to filling difficult vacancies begins with the job description, recruiters say. A job listing with so many requirements that it’s hard to read will be nearly impossible to fill. So the first tip recruiters offer is to avoid overwhelming potential candidates.

“It might seem like a good idea to make job requirements as exhaustive as possible, but in reality, that may turn off qualified candidates who would be great for the job,” says Jason Hayman, market research manager at IT staffing firm TEKsystems. “To combat this we recommend companies work with IT managers, line-level staff and recruiting experts to put together a realistic job description to widen the candidate pool.”

Working closely with recruiters to clarify your hiring needs is time well spent, says inVia Robotics’ Voorhies, who offers some tips on refining your outreach.

“We have to give our recruiters a lot of guidance and education on the specific roles we were looking for,” Voorhies says. “For example, controls engineer has several overloaded meanings depending on the industry where it’s being used. But after a few rounds of applicants, our hit rates picked up considerably. Now we have great working relationships with our recruiters, who get our business and what we’re seeking.”

When hiring for hard-to-fill roles, looking inward can be a worthwhile strategy, in particular for positions related to specific security threats your organization may face, says Tim Helming, security researcher and director of product management at DomainTools.

“Some of the skills identified by security operations leaders as most critical are less technical,” Helming says. “Critical thinking, curiosity, problem-solving, collaboration, and other soft skills are very much in demand — and the supply for those is healthy. When looking at staffing in this light, any enterprise may have outstanding raw talent for their team right within their walls.”