I asked 16 people already in the tech industry what advice they would give to someone keen to start working in IT, but not sure which area to pursue. Their advice ranged from "learn maths" to "software defined data centres are the future" to "take up plumbing instead".
Jobs of the future image from Shutterstock
IT is one of the better-paying areas to work in, but choosing a job solely on that basis is unlikely to be a recipe for happiness. While hanging at the Tech Leaders conference last month, I asked pretty much everyone presenting there what advice they would give to their teenage child if they were keen to pursue a career in IT but hadn't settled on a specific area. What subjects should they study and what areas should they pursue?
Whatever you do will end up changing
Not every career has to be planned. "I don't think many people try and engineer a career in IT," says John Donovan, regional VP for ForgeRock. "In many cases it just happens because people like working with stuff."
As well, tech changes so fast that planning any sort of career can be difficult. "The danger is not being trained across the business," says Mark Deguara, director data centre solutions, Emerson Network Power Australia/New Zealand. "Market dynamics are changing so much. If you've got a speciality in one area, you can lose your job overnight."
That's the case even in what can seem like highly skilled areas of technology. "It's getting much less about the plumbing and infrastructure jobs," says Gartner analyst Michael Warrilow. "If you're just running a network or changing a storage array, you're going to get outsourced and you're going to get offshored and you're going to get out of a job."
"IT has the least job security, other than being a gunslinger," says IBRS analyst Joseph Sweeney, "Right through the service sector globally, those entry-level jobs are going to disappear. How do you go from being a school leaver to a high-value knowledge worker?"
Given the likelihood of change, a generalist approach can be helpful. "A computer science degree is the best way to go, because once you finish that, you have about 2 million choices," says Rene Sugo, CEO of MyNetFone. "It will take you wherever you want to go. You can do gaming, you can do video, you can do special effects, you can do engineering."
Not everyone is so optimistic. "The flippant answer that I have is that I think they would probably be better off working in a trade," said Gartner's Warrilow. "There's more money and there's less hassle."
The danger is that this prophecy might become self-fulfilling, with no-one training in IT and thus no chance of the area growing. "The Australian community has turned its back on IT as an industry," says John Delaney, managing director for Colladium/eVision. "We're just not hiring people who are born here in Australia. If I put an ad in the paper for a developer, I'll get 50 applicants, most of them from overseas. Everyone thinks there's no career in IT which is completely wrong."
Enterprise tech is less sexy, but potentially more lucrative. "It used to just be 'are you able to build software? Are you able to operate software?," says Bhaskar Sunkara, co-founder of App Dynamics. "Now anybody that can understand how you build something mission-critical and any skill associated with it is super-big."
STEM to the fore
One super-big option that came up a lot: maths skills. We're often told that all four branches of the "STEM Tree" (science, technology, engineering and maths) are important, but it's the numbers skills that underpin the others. "I'd say maths," says Gordon Gay, general manager for the mobile development group at NEC. "Every day when I come into work, I need to somehow get a multinational like NEC to give me money at a much higher level. Maths and the ability to apply it is quite a big requirement.
"Go and do a maths degree with a focus on the fact that your job is going to get totally automated," says IBRS' Sweeney. "Get your head around how to understand not just the tools, but the principles."
That said, recognise that your aptitude might not lie in this field. "Everybody loves to talk about STEM, but I don't think either of my teenage children are STEM candidates," says ForgeRock's Donovan.
Coding and security
Two specific areas that came up regularly were security and coding. "Security, unequivocally," says Bill Taylor-Mountford, Asia-Pacific VP at LogRhythm. "For the next 15 years, security is going to be the biggest growth area."
"I've come from hardware to Novell to security, and I enjoy security the most," says Sam Ghebranious, regional director ANZ for CyberArk. "Security will be touching everything we do. Even the coders will need to have a security focus."
"Today I would say go in the field of IT security if you have the basic flair," agrees Rajesh Ganesan, director of product management at ManageEngine. "That is one area that is largely under-represented and under-valued. Functionality you can build any time, but I often ask my team: how did we miss that vulnerability?"
The role of programmers has changed, and hands-on coding is less common. "As the software industry has transformed, the tools that have been created to build software have meant that people don't have a six year learning curve," says Graham Sowden, Asia-Pacific general manager for Acquia. "Many of the coders we have know how to use a tool as opposed to writing the code underneath it.
That said, new languages can provide an option. "There's a lot of sexy brand new languages out there," says Murray Warner, managing director for business development at Concur. "Take any noun and add .js to it."
Yet the risk of offshoring remains. "I wouldn't say be a code cutter because you're competing with people all around the world," says Andrew Powell, Asia-Pacific managing director for Rimini Street.
Don't forget the non-tech
Hyper-precise technical skills might pay off. "They should get into software defined data centres," says Matt Kates, Zerto country manager. "Those are the current trend and future of the IT space. Software and cloud are buzzwords, but they're buzzwords for a reason."
But no IT role is purely based on tech skills. "It doesn't have to be technical," says Colladium's Delaney. "The service industry is a lot broader than just the technical side."
"The people that tend to make money tends to be salespeople," says Concur's Warner. "It's not always as steady, and you're only as good as your last quarter, but if you're really good you can transfer it across multiple companies. What the widget does is often not as important as how you explain it."
But even a sales career requires planning. "You've got to look at the waves," says Rimini Stret's Powell. "10 years ago I would have said I want to become a salesperson for VMware. Today I'd say being a salesperson for third-party software maintenance. You've got to look at where the profits are."
Even in a more traditionally technical role, you can't ignore other areas. "They should be developing exceptionally good communication and relationship management skills," says Nathan Steiner, head of systems engineering at Veeam.
And don't forget the basic rules of workplace etiquette. As IBRS' Sweeney pithily puts it: "Don't do drugs. And don't have an office affair."
A final note: it didn't escape my attention that every single person quoted in this story is male. Sadly, that reflects general trends across the tech space. Everyone could do better on that front.
Angus Kidman is editor-in-chief for comparison site finder.com.au and a former editor for Lifehacker Australia. He sometimes wonders what would have happened if he'd pursued programming as a career instead. Follow him on Twitter @gusworldau.