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Do you have what it takes?

We asked a variety of people who hire for tech positions what they look for when it is time to sort through the slush pile of applications on their desks.

Do you have what it takes? CIOs and other H.R. decision-makers have some specific ideas about what they want from IT job applicants.

Even if the technology job market is bouncing back–and the jury’s most certainly still out–the IT employment field is just as competitive as ever, if not more so. Setting yourself apart from the pack has never been more crucial, but how does one go about doing that? We asked a variety of people who hire for tech positions what they look for when it’s time to sort through the slush pile of résumés on their desks. They didn’t always agree on what they want from a prospective employee, but taken as a whole, their tips should give you a leg up on the other folks who are gunning for that dream job you’ve got your eye on.

Are there certain platforms and technologies that are especially short of qualified workers right now?

Lonnie Helgerson, CEO/founder of Expetec Technology Services, Aberdeen, S.D.: There is a demand for people with the experience to protect systems from viruses and attacks.

Sonia Muhaimeen, U.S. recruiting director for ThoughtWorks Inc., Chicago.: We are very much in need of .NET developers and architects with a strong object-oriented background. They are few and far between.

Renee Forcey, project director for Kenexa, Wayne, Pa.: Positions in IT security and networking have seen an increase last year, and we are trending in the same direction for 2005.

James Judge, founder of Cambridge Consulting Solutions, Greensboro, N.C.: Enterprise mobility is heating up. Anyone with experience in mobile applications like e-mail, PIMs, and mobile platform development is in demand. One particular platform need is experience with Microsoft Exchange from an ISV/SI standpoint, rather than people with experience as end-user administrators.

Patrick O’Neill of TopCoder Inc., Glastonbury, Conn.: We have seen a bit of a push lately for Linux, C#, or .NET front-end GUI skills. In general, the push we have seen is to get smart people in a position to learn the platforms, and technologies that are employed in a given environment.

All else being equal, it is more beneficial organizationally to hire exceptionally smart Java developers and teach them .NET than it is to hire a .NET developer of average intelligence just because the person knows .NET.

Suzanne Gordon, vice president-Information Technology/CIO for SAS, Cary, N.C.: Good IT security experts are hard to find. I believe we see enough applicants in other areas.

Marcelo Roman, director of IT Education Services-Americas for IBM, New York City: The major areas where the industry is experiencing skills shortages are in technologies and methodologies such as Web services, application development for Web enablement, networking and security, and Linux and open source.

John Martin, president and co-founder of Impact Innovation Group, Dallas: Java.net and ASP.net. When you see Java talent moving to a Microsoft platform, you know this is a lasting trend. All of the data warehouse data mining tools are hot. Companies built large data warehouses back in 2000 and 2001. They are now looking to extract that data and use it to better understand their customers and business.

Do tech bosses look more closely at experience or training?

Fumiko Kondo, managing director of Intellilink Solutions, New York City: Experience. Training can never substitute real world troubleshooting and know-how.

Mark Lucas, executive vice president of Entre Computer Services, Rochester, N.Y.: This is an industry of doers. The customer expects that when you walk through their doors, you are either very good or expert at the task at hand, whether that task is project planning or tweaking the memory. Having said that, training initiates experience. The answer to the conundrum “How do I get experience if no one will hire me?” is training and certifications.

Forcey: Let’s break technology into two separate areas, functional and technical. For those in functional positions, hiring mangers are going to want to see experience. True technical, core development positions are viewed differently, and there is a bit more of a balance between experience and training.

The balance will be tipped when a new language or tool is introduced to the market. For example, when Microsoft’s .NET gained ground, employers were scrambling for developers who were even vaguely familiar with the new framework. [They wanted people] with minimal professional working experience who had any training in C#, ASP.NET, or VB.NET. People with less than a year of experience but who had been trained in .NET were receiving offers over C+/C++ developers with four years’ experience. In the computer science industry, which IT is a part of, it is really a matter of timing and trends and keeping yourself up to date on the new emerging tools, languages, and applications.

Helgerson: With so many unemployed tech workers, employers have the luxury of finding an experienced candidate. When workers are short, you loosen up your criteria to find more applicants. That is when you start looking at training. In other words, even if that person does not possess the experience, at least they have been exposed to the product. But experience has an advantage right now.

O’Neill: A mistake that many organizations make is that the tech bosses often don’t look at either experience or training until a recruiter or HR person has screened a résumé. The result is that many times the best résumé will make it to the tech boss rather than the best candidate. At this point, hiring mangers often look more closely at training, presuming that those not meeting certain experience requirements have been successfully screened.

What are some red flags that might cause a résumé to be rejected?

Kondo: Traditionally résumés that showed too many jobs with no longevity at any of them was a red flag, but these days, that is not seen nearly as negatively. However, they do want to see progression on a résumé.

Lucas: Conversely, if you haven’t moved at all in 15 years and you’re suddenly available, you may be terrific but a flag goes up that questions your ambition and flexibility.

Forcey: The No. 1 red flag is typos! If you are a quality assurance analyst, or if you are a tester, how are hiring managers going to feel about your ability to catch bugs if you haven’t even done so in your own résumé?

Also, your résumé is not the place to be modest. List every language, tool, and application that you know. Remember, the first person to look at your résumé might not a technical professional and won’t always make the inferences you think they will. If you list UML as one of your skills, the recruiter may pass on your résumé because the recruiter was told that the applicant needed experience with case tools.

O’Neill: One of the more common résumé killers is going into too much detail about specific projects or jobs. The résumé should whet their appetite for what you can tell them during an interview. Also, HR managers want to be able to read through a résumé quickly. Make sure they can, but also that they know why you’d be valuable. Finally, focus on yourself. While giving credit to your colleagues on the project is important and shows you’re a team player, don’t forget to toot your own horn. They’re not considering hiring your colleagues.

Martin: People put .NET experience of more than four years, because it was in Beta five years ago. Also, people who are vague on their education, implying they have a degree.

Are there certifications that could give job seekers an edge in the coming year?

Lucas: A+, MCSE for security, and CCNA for project management.

Muhaimeen: While .NET and Java certifications are a plus, they are certainly not required, and only give people who are certified a slight edge over those who are not.

Forcey: If you are a programmer, I highly recommended becoming well versed in languages outside of your comfort zone, for example if you are currently writing in Java, learn your way around .NET, and vice versa. My greatest piece of advice is to diversify your skill set and do not become too comfortable in your current environment.

Martin: CCIE, CISSP, and MCSD

Roman: IBM is starting to look less at the specific product certification and more at the professionals and their overall skills and experiences. Job- and role-based certifications are in their early stages, but will prove to be more valuable to an employer as an indicator of experience versus pure product knowledge. For example, when I see product certifications on a résumé, it is good information. However, I am more interested in what they have done and how they have employed their knowledge in previous projects.

What are the skill sets that are valuable year in and year out, regardless of industry trends?

Helgerson: Real-world troubleshooting skills are always in demand.

Muhaimeen: Custom-designed experience in a team-setting on large-scale distribute object-oriented systems.

Judge: Sales engineering. Because of the complexity of delivering enterprise class solutions today, if you are a pre- and post-sales engineer–which is a typical technical marketing position–with good customer facing skills, you’ll be in demand.

O’Neill: More and more, tech bosses tend to be looking for proof in the pudding, if you will. With programming positions, for example, a Java certification may help with the initial HR screen. Once the tech boss gets involved, it’s likely that the candidate will have to code a solution to a problem in Java, sometimes on the spot on a white board. There simply is no substitute for having the required skills and performing under pressure.

Roman: In addition to solid technical skills, employees who possess business and financial skills, and who can tie technology to business priorities are extremely valuable. As companies implement business process transformation initiatives, many of which rely on changing technologies, business analysis and solution architect sort of skills are in demand. Additionally, companies are seeking individuals with strong project management skills and experience, coupled with technical skills, to align and support these transformation and technology initiatives and projects.

Do you feel it’s better to diversify one’s skill set, or to specialize?

Helgerson: Both. It’s important to focus on a segment such as Web development, but also diversify enough to change with the times. I know some world-class COBOL programmers who are still looking for work.

Lucas: If you specialize, recognize that you must strive to become the best of the best. The reward will come in building a reputation as the go-to person for that specialty. Diversification doesn’t allow you the luxury of being bad at lots of things.

Muhaimeen: Specializing is better, but it comes with its own set of problems. If you pick the wrong areas to specialize in, you may find your skill set obsolete in a few years.

O’Neill: Specialization, in general, is a less marketable attribute than diversification. Expertise is always important, but specializing in only a very specific area leaves one vulnerable to market trends.

Gordon: I recommend you don’t wed your expertise to a particular vendor.

Martin: Specialize. Clients are paying for expertise. Companies are doing more with less, so if they hire a technical professional for an area, they want that person to be self-sufficient in that area.

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