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The 5 things keeping IT leaders up at night

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It should come as a surprise to no one that IT professionals at the top of their field are facing increased anxiety within the workplace. While it used to be an ancillary part of the business, IT is now taking on a central strategic role that touches every facet of the business, including HR, marketing and customer relations.

With data breaches making daily news headlines and the near-constant pressure to remain abreast of the latest best practices, IT has evolved well beyond a typical 9-to-5 job as businesses are expected to make themselves available to customers 24/7.

Vess L. Johnson has seen this IT role shift firsthand. Three decades ago he began his career as an electrical engineer, working his way up until he served as CEO for multiple startups in the semiconductor space.

“After I had done several of these turnarounds, I decided that I was getting too old and cynical to do it again,” Vess said. “So I went back and got my Ph.D. up at the University of North Texas.” It was there he met Leon Kappelman, a professor of information systems at North Texas who also heads up the Society for Information Management’s IT Trends Study.

The IT Trends Study is the most comprehensive survey of top IT leaders and has charted industry-wide shifts over a span of decades. By the time Johnson had joined the IT Trends team, the survey had already been asking respondents to list their biggest IT investments, but he felt this didn’t provide enough insight into where the industry was heading.

“It’s one thing to ask an IT leader what’s important to the organization,” he explained. “But what about issues that are important to them personally? You know, what keeps them up at night when things are going wrong? Based on my 20 years in the industry, my thought was that these could be radically different things.”

Sure enough, once the study’s authors added the question “What keeps you up at night?” to the survey they began seeing some divergent trends and interesting insights.

Here are the top five responses in the 2015 survey:

Security and privacy
This issue has skyrocketed to the top of the list in recent years, whereas only a half decade ago it hardly registered. Its rise can likely be attributed to the near-constant high-profile security breaches that have generated widespread media coverage.

“In some cases, millions of records have been stolen,” said Johnson. “Then you have the breaches in the government agencies, where they don’t even really know how many things have been stolen. I think the consumer is becoming more aware of privacy issues, so they’re putting more pressure on companies to be more careful with their personal data.”

Alignment of IT with the business
Historically, said Johnson, the needs of the business always outpace the IT department’s ability to meet those needs, and that has been especially true as IT has taken on a more central strategic role within most companies.

“Whoever the top IT person at a company is needs to be so attuned with the business and where it is going in order to perceive changes that need to happen within the IT environment,” he explained. “For someone working in IT 20 years ago, as long as there wasn’t a problem — the systems worked and the lights were on — then he was doing a great job. But the job has evolved from a service provider role to a much more strategic one in the company.”

IT talent and skills shortage
In a previous article we wrote about the massive investments IT departments are making in business analytics, and because of this there’s been a rising demand for skilled workers in data science and analytics. The only problem? Universities aren’t yet producing these types of workers in great enough numbers.

“We’re even going out and retraining people that have graduated with MIS degrees five to 10 years ago and trying to help them upgrade their skills to where they can actually work in the area of big data,” said Johnson. “A lot of times what happens is there’s a lag between what becomes the ‘hot area’ and our ability to produce graduates that actually have learned skills in those areas. Even when a school rolls out a new program it takes four years to turn around a graduate that can address that problem. So there’s a natural lag that occurs.”

Speed of IT delivery and time-to-market
This is in some ways tied to the previous item on the alignment of IT with the business. IT leaders are constantly pitched by vendors claiming to offer up cutting edge technology that will help improve the bottom line, and it can be incredibly stressful trying to discern which technologies are worth investing precious time and resources into.

“Every 18 months we’ve basically obsoleted ourselves,” said Johnson. “So how do you keep up? There’s this constant pressure on businesses to adapt to a changing marketplace.”

Agility and flexibility
With increasing reliance on third party IT vendors, many tech leaders worry about vendor lock-in and the ability to remain agile when their business is wedded to a technology that might be obsolete in a few years.

“This is why the CIO needs to be in the top management team,” said Johnson. “It’s so they can see where the business wants to be 12, 24, and 36 months from now, or else they will always be in the position of sitting back and waiting for the business to tell them what it needs, which means the CIO will always be playing catch-up.”

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