A report by Xantus reveals that 97% of CIOs are using compliance to introduce innovation in the City – but are hindered by a shortage of IT innovators. David Upton, associate director of Xantus gives this exclusive interview outlining the roles in demand, skills needed, and the new route to innovator.
Q: Who are the IT innovators?
A: The key innovation roles in the City’s IT departments are strategists and architects.
• Strategists set the long-term agenda for the IT department and consider not only technology, but issues such as operating model, charging and cost recovery and sourcing.
• Architects, especially enterprise architects looking across the breadth of the IT estate, define a technical roadmap, which builds the platform for innovation. They then work within major programmes to implement solutions that align with this. Maximising flexibility and commonality of data are important as well as ensuring no technology dead-ends are entered.
Q: What other skills and experience do candidates need?
A: A broad technical background is the start point – Jack or Jill of all trades and master of one might be a good description of an ideal candidate. But it needs more than this. Real, firsthand experience in an operational role is extremely valuable, as is a broad commercial understanding. Finally, they must also be excellent communicators as the role of translator between business and IT is crucial to their role.
Q: Why is there a shortage?
A: There are far fewer IT professionals now in the UK gaining the crucial experience that will make them a great architect or strategist in the future. Traditionally, IT people grew through an application development or an operational role managing IT infrastructure. Over time, their skills and experience would broaden and they would develop the necessary holistic appreciation of the end-to-end environment. The last few years have seen a dramatic shift in the UK with application development and maintenance roles being moved to offshore providers. This has also happened to a lesser extent for those managing the infrastructure.
Q: What’s the future route to innovator?
A: A more common route will either be consultancy, where experience will be acquired quickly through a variety of assignments or suppliers / service providers, where scale still exists to offer a breadth of experience and the career development and training opportunities. End-user organisation – internal IT departments - will struggle to ‘grow their own’ innovators and will also have to work hard to keep those they do have.
Q: How can IT increase its influence over innovation?
A: Proactivity is a big part of it. Getting out there and talking with the business people they support, using their language, is the starting point. From this dialogue it’s possible to start to influence direction, through business people having a better understanding of what’s possible (or not) and how this can add value to their proposition. Often, the agenda is driven by suppliers – often software suppliers – wooing business people with promises of functionality and efficiencies.
Q: What kind of IT innovation is happening in financial services?
A: The past few years have seen a lot of development in the eChannel. Transactional web sites for customers, be it internet banking, insurance quotation or servicing an account online, have improved. Presentation is better - they are simpler to use and have more functionality - and reliability has improved significantly. Making all of this available through different channels has also started to happen, such as the smartphone and tablet.
Q: How easily can innovators move between sectors?
Quite easily. Having worked across sectors, many of the challenges in financial services are similar to those in other industries. The need for functional, reliable, performant systems at an acceptable price is consistent. Only a small proportion of the issues are specific to an industry. Where this does not hold so true is where skills are focussed on industry specific applications. Actuarial systems might be an example, which are heavily used in insurance but few other sectors.
Q: How are companies looking to resolve the skill shortage?
A: Our research shows that many are recruiting, an equal number are looking to use third parties such as consultancies and some are doing both. A very small number are doing neither. Architects in particular a very sought-after resource and they will find they are becoming highly marketable. At Xantus, we have been recruiting Architects almost continuously for some time now and it’s hard work to get the right people with a mix of not just good technical skills, but the commercial and operational awareness needed to apply the technology.
Q: How can juniors make the promotion to these coveted roles?
A: There aren’t many short-cuts. Working in a consultancy or a service provider can accelerate things but this comes at a price - expect a lot of travel and working away from home and a lot of pressure. Look for as much variety as possible, even if it’s not your first choice. One particular technology might be very appealing to you but a couple of years in a broader service management, or even commercial role will make you much more marketable, because you will have different perspectives.
Q: What‘s the demand for contractors v permanent staff?
A: A permanent team of innovators tends to be of a size that has critical mass but is affordable based on workload. This is often supplemented with contract staff to meet peaks in demand or specialist skills which can’t be justified on a long term basis. Companies often have to recruit contract staff if they are struggling to make permanent hires.
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