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How to Keep Your Tech Career Alive

Anyone who has worked in IT for more than five minutes knows that the field has been in a dramatic transformation for the past 10 years, invading and conquering other organizational domains such as communications and security, while also wrestling with the new issues that technology has wrought such as employee mobility. In most organizations, IT has had to transform itself from a bunch of techies installing and troubleshooting equipment to a key enabler of business strategy and competitiveness.

Throughout, outsourcing and offshoring have shaken the foundations of IT, making some wonder at times if they have a role in their organization at all. And those who work in outsourcing companies also have to figure out what their role is when they are supporting a variety of clients.

What do all these changes mean for the typical IT employee today? What skills should an IT staffer be nurturing to enhance his or her career in a changing market? From InfoWorld's research, it's clear that IT staff need to bolster their skills and certifications in three key categories: technology, process, and business skills.

The Essential Technology Skills for IT Staff

Despite all the changes the profession has gone through as it has become intertwined with the business, IT is still about technology at its core. Today, several technologies stand out as enticing career opportunities due to their complexity and the shortage of IT expertise around them. Four stand out in particular: virtualization, unified communications, wireless, and modern application development.

Virtualization. In the rush to consolidate operations and reduce IT capital costs, virtualization has taken off, particularly server virtualization.

But the introduction of virtualization to reduce hardware and energy usage has brought in a new challenge: how to manage the virtual environment. "Virtual machines are so easy to develop and so difficult to manage," says Mike Walsh, a product manager for Global Knowledge, an IT and business training organization. "If you're creating virtual machines that can be moved all around physical servers, updated or not, documented or not, protected or not, how in the world do you manage it all? You can have a single physical server running dozens of different operating systems, including a legacy application on an old version of NT. It's very challenging."

As demand for virtualization skills increases, training and certification programs from both independent trainers and virtualization vendors are starting to appear for virtualization management. Although such training is useful, the best way to enhance your virtualization career, experts say, is to get real-world training on the job, especially through a large virtualization project.

Unified communications. Another emerging hot technology is unified communications, which involves the merging of voice and data networks through technologies such as VoIP (Voice over IP). A Cisco-sponsored report found that 57 percent of companies expected to require additional IP telephony skills in the near future. A recent Forrester report cites unified communications specialists as one of the top growth areas in IT organizations, requiring expertise with networking, user devices, and collaboration applications. "We always thought of networking, server, administration, and application administration as different disciplines. But with categories like unified communications, they're all merging," says Kimberly Lanzo-Russo, a director of Microsoft-related training at Global Knowledge.

"Security in VoIP is huge," Walsh says. "Today if you want to talk about something involving sensitive information, you typically don't send an e-mail, you pick up the phone so that there's nothing left on the screen, no record, nothing intercepted. Unfortunately, however, it's not all that difficult to put a tap on VoIP calls so that you capture any call in which, for example, the word 'merger' is said."

To a large extent, VoIP security expertise is about knowing how to set up the right controls, policies, procedures, and enforcement mechanisms. The SANS Institute and InfoSec Institute are among those that offer courses on VoIP security.

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