Wanted: IT Staffers with Vertical Industry Chops

Fast-changing business processes, tight deadlines, customization demands and ever-growing regulations are complicating day-to-day operations. What's needed now is 'IT-plus' -- a combination of technical skills and business knowledge, plus deep industry expertise.

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A 33-year veteran of the $23.7 billion manufacturer, Morrissette joined Alcoa with a computer science degree. After a few years, he moved to an IT manager's role at a smelting power plant and mining facility in Texas. At one point in his career, during a strike by unionized labor, he went to work on the plant floor, driving trains and setting controls, he recalls.

Now, about one-third of his team in the information and processes group is made up of predominantly IT people who spent time in the plants and now work on manufacturing execution systems. "They're growing with the job," Morrissette says, adding that the other two-thirds are process control engineers.

"Typically, you don't see engineers move into the IT space. They stay on the process side," he says. "But we certainly have IT individuals who came on board as programmers and are now sitting in the processes group performing engineering roles inside of our information processing systems."

At Alcoa's Power and Propulsion business unit, a project under way for the U.S. Air Force requires a highly detailed genealogy of every manufactured part that goes into each plane. "It helps the Air Force do a better job with predictive maintenance," explains IT director Phil Helal.

But to deliver that level of service, "you have to have IT professionals who understand every step of the [manufacturing] process in order to extract, store and manage all of the information," Helal says.

Additionally, and perhaps most important, there's "a huge financial incentive" for IT to deeply understand the manufacturing process, which also happens to be highly regulated, he adds.

For example, Helal's business unit is piloting software-based tools that will enable 2D and 3D representations of castings in progress as a way to more accurately identify and correct defects and variations in real time.

"A piece of scrap for us translates to millions of dollars over the course of the year, so you need people [in IT] who understand the process and work very closely with operators on the floor," he says. "They know enough that they could conceivably step in and do that job."

That's IT-plus.

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

This story, "Wanted: IT Staffers with Vertical Industry Chops" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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