What Color Is Your Parachute? 2017: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers

Developing Top-Notch IT Skills

1. How to Assess IT Skills
2. Skills Serving the Server
3. Skills Building the Web
4. Skills from Industry Leaders
5. Skills Meeting Industry Standards
6. Highly Marketable Skills
7. Booming Skills and Declining Skills

1. How to Assess IT Skills

As an individual IT pro, your career is built on skills. How much you worth and how much you make are dependent on the value of your skills in the industry. One of proven strategies for IT career success is to develop top level skills.

Let me emphasize that we are talking about top level skills only, with no interesting in second-class skills and sidewalk skills. It is so important that you acquire true first-class skills because you cannot afford the time and resources to learn everything. After all, when you have opportunities to obtain top level skills, why should you spend the same time and effort on second-class junk?

Then, what are the top level skills? How to find them?

That's what this book can answer.

The key point on this strategy is to evaluate IT skills and identify top level ones correctly. In the following sections, I'll give you solid rules and examples for this. First, let's have a brief review of skill classification.

Skill Classification

To make it simple, I divided IT skills into three levels based on common values in the industry. Criteria for each class level are revealed below:

First-Class Skill

  • Enterprise based
  • Network enabled
  • Database backed
  • Standardized
  • Significant implementation
  • On technical trend

Second-Class Skills

  • Network enabled
  • Database enabled
  • Client side
  • Market follower

Third-Class Skills

  • Isolated
  • Desktop based
  • Non-standard
  • Over specified
  • Small scale niche area

OK, you all want first-class skills. What are they? Here are the rules to identify them:

First-Class Skill Locating Rules

First-class skills meet the following criteria:

  • First-class skills serve the server.
  • First-class skills build the web.
  • First-class skills are from industry leaders.
  • First-class skills meet industry standards
  • First-class skills are highly marketable.

Clear enough? Let analyze each rule in detail and get some examples.

2. Skills Serving the Server

First-class skills seat on the server side. If you are in a team of client/server system development, try to work on the sever side. As always, server side skills are much more valuable than the client side skills.

Let's take a client/server application as the example. What's on the server? Your server side skills are on:

  • Database, database connections via ODBC/JDBC, stored procedures and packages.
  • Middleware, component objects that process business logics and rules.

On the other end - the client side, your skills could be:

  • Create graphical user interface (GUI) windows.
  • Write functions to process business logic.

As you see, in a client/server project, you can develop valuable skills by working on the server side tasks - designing data model, building store procedures and packages, or even writing client-side functions that serve the server. But you don't get much credit if you spend all your time working on client interfaces and end-user reports. With client-side experience only, you are treated as a low-end professional no mater how many years of experience you have.

Let's take a quick look of another example - J2EE based web application system. With a well partitioned team, tasks are categorized by tiers - client tier, presentation tier, business tier, integration tier, and resource tier. In this project, you should jump onto server side tiers - business tier, integration tier, and presentation tier where you have the opportunity to build first-class, top-level skills:

  • Create JavaBean components.
  • Write Servlet programs.
  • Code JSP (server-side script ) to process business rules

In the real world, you still need to get client-side skills to handle the whole project. These skills are client scripting languages such as:

  • HTML
  • JavaScript

Client-side skills are easy, but not value-rich. Although you need to spend enough time to master them, you shouldn't put career focus there. For instance, as a JavaScript programmer, your paycheck is not that great. To move to higher end, you must work on JSP, JavaBean, servlet, or even better, EJB - Enterprise JavaBean. As we have discussed previous section, first-class skills are enterprise-based. You can make your IT career more successful at enterprise level.

3. Skills Building the Web

There are two significant trends that have been realized in recent years in IT industry:

  • System Centralized - Information systems are migrating from client/server module to multi-tier, distributed platform. The thin client tier deals with only data presentation. All of other tiers are maintained on servers.
  • System Web Based - Web browsers, the truly thin client tier, become the universal interface to access enterprise application system. More and more organizations are converting their old systems into web-based platform.

As I said, these trends are real, and it will last long. The web-centralized market is now well established in IT industry for both products and jobs. With high-end web skills, you are a sure winner. The high-end web skills are related to enterprise-wide application system development and implementation. These are first-class skills on top.

Here we have an updated list of first-class skills that you must master. With them you can build highly successful career for a few decades. A high-profile IT career can be specified on web application system architect, design, development, and implementation. It's stable, safe, and very profitable.

  • J2EE - Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition is the standard platform for enterprise information systems. It gains support from giant venders such as Oracle and IBM.
  • Java - Java is a high level object oriented language from Sun. Java was designed with web in mind. It is fully web-enabled.
  • JavaBean and EJB - JavaBean and Enterprise JavaBean are specifications for creating middle-tire components in web application.
  • JSP - Java Server Page is the server-side script language supported by all J2EE compliant application servers. JSP can embed Java codes and Java beans into its tag. JSP can present data as well as process business logic.
  • Servlet - Servlet is an important middle-tire object. It may be used to play critical roles in web applications.
  • Application Server - Application server is a toolset and platform for web application implementation. The most popular application servers are IBM WebSphere and BEA WebLogic.
  • Apache - Apache is the most popular web server. It is widely accepted as the HTTP server in web application systems.
  • IIS - Internet Information Server is the web server and application server on Microsoft Windows platforms. It comes with WindowsXP Server and WindowsXP Professional.
  • ASP - ASP and ASP.NET are the web application language and toolset for Microsoft platform. They work with IIS only.
  • XML Web Services - It is a big thing. Go for it.

4. Skills from Industry Leaders

Skills from industry leaders, if meet other criteria, are most likely first-class skills. Industry leaders have the power and money to set the specifications on technologies, market the products, and therefore generate demands on the skills that apply the technologies.

Let's use database as the example to see how this rule is applied.

What are the first-class skills for database? They are Oracle skills, DB2 skills, and SQL Server skills because Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft are the industry leaders in database sector.

Any second-class skills? The skill of using Sybase Adaptive Server database is one of them. Sybase, once a power vendor in database server sector, is losing the database game. It still is a strong IT company, but it never get to the leader position. It is a follower, so as its products. Skills build on industry follower's products bear certain risk in long run.

Now we need to check out some third-class database skills. Microsoft Access is one. Yes, it is from the leader Microsoft, but it does not meet other criteria. MS Access is desktop-based and isolated. It does not serve the enterprise and does not fit in the network. You may use it to get the job done, but don't count on it for career success.

In the previous chapter 'Walk with Giants', we outlined IT industry leaders and their technologies. These are the first-class skills you want to get.

5. Skills Meeting Industry Standards

What are the industry standards? Let's name a few: Windows platform, UNIX platform, TCP/IP, .NET framework, J2EE, Java, C++, Visual Basic. Skills meeting industry standards are skills for technologies that are widely adopted across the industry. If a skill meets industry standards, it could possibly become the first-class one.

For instance, in the application development category, tool skills on Microsoft Visual Basic, Borland JBuilder, and Visual Cafe were used to be first class skills, because they support .NET or J2EE standard.

On the other hand, Sybase PowerBuilder and Boland Delphi are second-class skills. PowerBuilder use a language called Powerscript, which is far from the commonly-accepted standard. Delphi's programming language is based on Pascal, which is no longer popular in the industry. Although you can do the same good job with PowerBuilder and Delphi, the skills you acquired during the job won't add as much value as first-class skills.

The risk of holding second-class skills is that you may loss the total value. Here's an example, when Sybase first delivered its Application Server product, Enterprise Application Server (EAServer), it introduced a server script language called DynaScript that is non-standard. As you know, the standard sever script language is JSP and ASP. People who worked on EAS had spent time to get DynaScript skills. Later, Sybase changed strategy and abandoned DynaScript. Now EAServer adopts JSP for server scripting by following the standard and DynaScript is the history. In this case, it is almost worthless to put DynaScript on you resume no matter how good you are at it. So, why not start the first-class skill at the first place? You resume can always show value with the industry-standard JSP skills.

As for development tools, what are the third-class skills? There is none. This is a very competitive market, thus there is no room for the third class technologies to survive. Even the second-class skills are in danger. PowerBuilder, once a leading client/server tool, is losing market share badly. Although it is a great tool, it unfortunately started with a non-standard language. That's a big problem.

6. Highly Marketable Skills

First class skills must be highly marketable. They must be able to fit in the mass market. These skills apply technologies that have sizable implementation and user base. It's easy to find out what skills, tools, and technologies are popular and have large user base. Go to a bookstore and check out the computer book shelf, you'll see what topics are published at most. Another way is, check amazon.com website and search a name of the skill or technology, see how many results returned, you'll get a clue. Here are a few search results at Amazon:

Search Results
Java: 2066
.NET: 1970
Visual Basic: 1342
Oracle: 877
Novell: 301
Delphi: 284
PowerBuilder: 84
Legato: none

7. Booming Skills and Declining Skills

In this section, I give you two summarized lists of skills in opposite directions:

The booming skill list contains skills that are safe, stable, and have sustained value. You should get them, keep them, and go with them to build a successful career.

The declining skills are unpopular, off the trend, or even dying. You cannot count on them for career growth. Please be aware of that, these are not complete lists. You may just use them as a quick handy reference.

Booming Skills

  • J2EE skills: Java, servlet, JavaBean, EJB, JDBC
  • .NET framework: Visual Studio.NET (VB, VC++, ASP, C#)
  • Database skills on Oracle, DB2, SQL Server
  • Application Servers: IBM WebSphere and BEA WebLogic
  • TCP/IP networking on Windows and Unix platforms
  • Cisco routers, switches, IP communications, and security solutions.
  • Microsoft IIS
  • XML Web Services
  • UML, enterprise system design and architecture
  • Enterprise software: Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) and Enterprise Asset Management (EAS).

Declining Skills

Here I give you some examples. What I discussed here is only my personal opinions about technical skills related to these vendors. I must say, they are good companies who had made great contributions to our industry. I have nothing against them. Only on a personal point of view, I'd like to reveal a few unfavorable facts that may affect an individual professional's career.

Informix: Once the most popular object-oriented database, Informix skill was hot, but not any more. After Informix was acquired by IBM, its future is uncertain. Since IBM has already owned the flagship database product DB2, Informix may be dumped or merged to DB2 in the future. If Informix is still your major skill, you should consider moving to DB2 or Oracle.

Novell: Novell's networking system cannot compete with Microsoft. Novell does not run on TCP/IP - the industry standard network infrastructure, that's a big problem. Novell's network system is dying. Due to its large installation base, it dies slowly, that a good news. If you are a Novell professional, you should spend time to build skills on TCP/IP platform. Windows server technology is a good choice. However, if you only have 5 years to retirement, you are safe then. Novell will not go away that fast.

SilverStream: It was one of the best J2EE compliant Application Server, but it is a market loser. Novell acquired it and used its technology to build exteNd Application Server that mad SilverStream become history. On the positive side, a good portion of SilverStream skills can be applied to other J2EE compliant application servers. With SilverSteram background, you can jump to IBM WebSphere and BEA WebLogic easily.

PowerBuilder: As we have discussed, PowerBuilder is losing market share and user base significantly. The non-standard language PowerScript has only limited value. If PowerBuilder is still your main skillset, it is time for you to learn some Java. Since the new release started to support JSP development, it may adopt Java technology in the future migrate to a Java tool.

Delphi: It is the same story as PowerBuilder. Delphi is in a little bit better position than PowerBuilder. Its language Pascal is industry-recognized, although it is no longer popular. The new release offers IDE for .NET development, which makes me believe the future version of Delphi will become a fully functioned .NET tool. Still, you'd better move out, learn Java, and use original tools such as JBuilder and Visual Cafe.

BAAN: Baan was once a strong ERP vendor next only to SAP but it was ended as a total loser. There are still BAAN installations, but you don't hear it a lot recently. If your IT career is on ERP, you should work on SAP, PeopleSoft, or Oracle system. ERP is a specialized market, where it is more important to work with the right vendor. By all means, BAAN is not the right choice.