by Rich Hein

How to Handle the IT Skills Shortage: Architect Your People

Mar 13, 20148 mins
Business IT AlignmentCIOIT Governance

IT relies heavily on architecture -- in systems, data, software and, yes, even in people. This long-term strategy can help create a more flexible, more consistent and more scalable IT organization.

IT and technology are always going to be moving targets. The pace at which change takes place is furious compared to most industries. Technologies evolve and business objectives change. As a result, the skills required to get the job done must change, too. Finding perfect people who meet a laundry list of qualifications is a dubious task.

IT Skills and People Architecture

Businesses understand the value of architecture when it comes to their objectives or their data or software, but most companies don’t understand that architecting people is an equally important task. David Foote, Chief Analyst and cofounder of Foote Partners, says that what he dubs “people architecture” is what’s needed to achieve your business goals.

As businesses grow so does complexity. Many IT departments are struggling to keep up because they can’t find the people with the necessary IT skills. In the end, it always comes down to the people on your team. Even if you have the vision to know what needs to be done to transform your organization, without the right talent backing you up, it will never come to fruition.

To be agile and successful, businesses need to assess and reassess their team’s talent and skills with an eye to the future. The recent talent shortages in areas such as big data, analytics and mobile highlight the need for companies to use forethought when planning their hiring and retention strategies.

According to Foote, these are the major challenges facing senior IT executives and CIOs in regards to staffing and IT skills:

  • Constant skills gaps, difficulty hiring specialized workers with multidimensional skills and knowledge.
  • Inconsistency in job titles.
  • Tech gurus who don’t want to be promoted into management roles.
  • Market pay moving at different rates for workers in the same grade (e.g., technologists vs. people managers vs. IT-business hybrids)
  • Shaky career paths and incentive plans that are no longer effective.
  • Job evaluation done poorly or not at all. Outdated and/or inaccurate job descriptions.
  • Compensation benchmarking is market-based vs. internal equity based.
  • Salary compression issues.
  • Managing for big growth: finding the best organizational models, staffing optimization strategies and human capital practices to get there.
  • Convincing senior business management to invest dollars in substantial changes in IT workforce pay structures and budgets in order to execute predictably on strategic business initiatives.

With problems like these in the way of progress, you need to build a strategy that will bring new workers in the door and keep them happy, productive and engaged. This evolution is definitely a long-term strategy, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Here are some things you can do now to help begin the journey.

Focus on IT Roles Not Jobs

“Architecture isn’t about tearing down the house and starting with a clean sheet of paper. That’s unworkable. What it means is taking the structure that already exists and building a foundation under it,” says Foote. Companies need to rethink their strategies and consider these as the cardinal IT roles:

  • IT Architects define IT solutions to business challenges via architectures, systems, applications and process components and the integration of a broad variety of applications and diverse hardware and software components.
  • Project Management professionals initiate, plan, execute, control and close projects/ programs, using formal profession processes, methods, tools and techniques to manage scope, financials, risks, changes, issues, resources, contracts and customer satisfaction.
  • IT Analysts identify new business/technology environment opportunities, align processes to technology using world-class knowledge assets and experts, and team with clients to provide lasting value.
  • IT Specialists support solution construction working in a team with IT architects. They validate the solution in the context of the solution sale and implement it with a systems integration approach in a technology or business specialty.

*There can also be several offshoots for different technical engineering groups like software engineers, for example.

This chart depicts how each role might interact on any given project:

IT Skills_Project Management

Data and Image Courtesy of Foote Partners

Rethink Your Job Descriptions

Many organizations tend to create job descriptions with a laundry-list of required skills and spend long periods of time looking for the perfect fit. That’s not the most effective approach, according to experts.

“When we engage with a new client, sometimes what they say is we are looking for another partner because our offshore software development provider can’t fill the following role and we get this email from them with a list of dozens of technical skills. Our response is that we need to talk about what you need to do. What is the ultimate goal here? Then you can begin to translate that into what should a team look like? What should the talent of that team be? What skills do you have and which can you easily acquire?” says Michael Rosenbaum, founder and CEO of Catalyst IT Services, a provider of agile outsourcing services.

Assess and Reassess IT Skills

As your business objectives evolve or the technology changes so do the IT skills required to get the job done. You need to regularly assess and reassess where you are and what IT skills are needed to get where you want to be. Organizations that have a critical need or find themselves in a time crunch should use consultants or services firms. Use these hired guns to fill skills gaps and keep your business objectives moving forward.

Train Up Your Existing Staff

Mickey Mantle, CEO of Wanderful Inc. and co-author of “Managing the Unmanageable” warns that consultants shouldn’t be used as a long-term fix unless they function as part of your team. When using consultants to keep your project moving forward, smart managers will be back-filling the respective skill set by hiring in new talent or training up your existing staff.

Rosenbaum says his organization believes you’ve got to make that perfect employee, so much so that they’ve tried to build it into their hiring process. There, a set of algorithms is used to parse through data points created through their prospective employee’s application and interview process. Employees who best fit the culture are brought aboard and the skills can be taught later. Rosenbaum says that the technical skills are only a small part of what makes employees successful in his organization.

“It’s really the talent that drives the performance and with the skills, you can fill the holes in pretty easily,” says Rosenbaum. One of the most important skills in IT is the ability to learn fast and this is a skill that needs to considered, whether you’re hiring new talent or promoting from within, he says.

Build Tech Career Paths

Getting the right people is hard, but retaining them is even harder. To keep your superstars, you’ve got to have some sort of career progression for them. Companies need to define standards around IT roles that include things like technical skills, business skills and soft skills required to move to the next level. Compensation, skills premiums and incentives must also be considered when building these profiles. According to Foote, this is where most companies fall short. They don’t understand how to pay for different skills as they become more in demand.

Experts agree that clear career paths increase retention and improve morale. You also need a clear-cut methodology that outlines what it takes to get from one position to the next. Knowing what it takes to get to the next level goes a long way towards employee retention. Offering employees the tools to get there should make their decision to go or stay an easy one.

Here is an example of how career paths might be outlined in a given organization.

IT and Tech Jobs Career Maps

Courtesy of Foote Partners

Setup a College Recruitment Program

The most successful way to build talent, according to Mantle, is to build a college recruitment program. “Building a recruitment program gets us out there and allows us to bring in and mold new talent,” he says.

Think Differently

Architecting your people is not something that is going to happen overnight. It’s about breaking up silos and disparate IT roles and creating more horizontal roles. While this isn’t an easy process, Foote says it is a necessary step in order to deal with the ever-growing complexity and the pace of technology.

Foote says that this approach will require organizations to rethink the way they’ve handled staffing in the past — some will need some changes, but others will require a complete overhaul. This is a huge task for most businesses and the ones that embrace it will likely be the ones feeling a certain amount of pressure. “For organizations to do this,” Foote says, “they have to be feeling the pain.”

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Rich Hein is a senior writer for He covers IT careers. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.