Maths is not our strong point

Computer Weekly has been given a sneak preview of the early findings from the Scale 21 report on what it takes to be a success in...

Computer Weekly has been given a sneak preview of the early findings from the Scale 21 report on what it takes to be a success in the IT industry. Nathalie Towner reports

Today's IT professionals may have more in common with Alistair Campbell than Alan Turing. The initial findings from the Scale 21 report, revealed exclusively to Computer Weekly, show that advanced maths skills are no longer a prerequisite for building a successful career in the IT industry and many of you have good people skills.

In total, 1,800 individuals completed more than 3,000 tests and assessments, making this report the most comprehensive analysis of the skills needed for a career in IT ever undertaken.

The results show how much the IT profession has evolved from the days when it comprised a few boffins and mathematicians working alone in the basement.

Not all the results were unexpected, with respondents showing a high IQ-based capability for analogies and patterns.

The surprise result was the low average score for arithmetic and conventional logic. This goes against the common perception of computer workers as being strong on maths and logical thinking. The results reflect a profession that has changed in emphasis and is attracting people whose talents lie in new fields.

For decades the IT establishment has seen logical reasoning, maths skills and spatial awareness as the vital skills in our industry. But these are no longer enough to ensure success in IT departments that are increasingly at the forefront of business strategy.

As part of the Scale 21 study, profiles were created to build up a picture of the behavioural skills that IT professionals possess. Profiling seeks to identify where an individual's talents lie. The main objective is to help a person understand their preferences, strengths, weaknesses and relationships with others.

The survey found that ITers have evolved into strong influencers who are able to get people to act positively or favourably towards them or their ideas.

Respondents scored well above the UK average for being motivated when interacting with other people, and for being enthusiastic and good at cultivating relationships. Results indicate that they strive to make a favourable impression and radiate optimism.

ITers are increasingly involved in corporate decisions and a key skill is to be able to influence other departments and companies. The days when networking was the reserve of public school boys are long gone. Computer workers are well aware of the benefits it brings and have become adept at using it to their own ends.

The profiles also show that IT staff are motivated by providing high-quality work, scoring much higher than the UK average in this area. According to the survey, they are driven by compliance to policy and standards and look to avoid error, conflict and danger.

The respondents were found to be good at concentrating on dangers, enforcing quality standards and directives and monitoring and controlling. They are also good at improving quality standards and fact finding.

The results suggest the industry is thriving by employing outgoing and vibrant people just as well as detail-orientated individuals.

Despite their motivation to provide high-quality work, the respondents scored well below the UK average when it came to "steadiness", which, in this context, means performing work in a consistent manner to produce predictable results.

ITers also fell below the UK average when it came to being "dominant" - although this was a less marked result. In the Scale 21 definitions, dominant individuals are described as accomplishing results in spite of opposition or antagonistic circumstances. These people are motivated by getting results, by being challenged, by making decisions and by taking action.

The Life Skills section of the survey was designed to measure some of the more elusive factors that contribute to a person's success in the IT field. Important personality characteristics, such as coping skills, perfectionism, self-efficacy, persistence and goal-orientation, are considered to play an essential role in each individual's ability to make it in the technology industry.

Contrary to expectations, respondents gained a low average score for perfectionism.

Programmers are traditionally employed to produce 100% accurate work but, if these findings are to be believed, perhaps this is not a realistic expectation. Maybe the results provide a starting point for discussions that could lead to a better understanding of which working practices produce the least "buggy" software.

The report says having a high score for perfectionism could mean that the individual concerned is making themselves unnecessarily unhappy. Perfectionists can set high standards that are difficult to meet either for themselves or others. It warns that individuals should be able to distinguish between reasonable aspirations and unrealistic demands.

With the exception of perfectionism, respondents scored highly in all the other life skills.

The Scale 21 report describes four traits that most of the IT professionals who completed the tests seem to possess:

  • They are flexible and find it relatively easy to adapt to change.

  • They are resourceful and are able to find solutions to unusual problems. They know where to turn for help and information. This decreases the risk of them getting stuck or feeling helpless.

  • They are self-sufficient and trust their own judgement. They are able to learn from their own mistakes.

  • They are goal-oriented self-starters who stay focused on the task and are not put off by obstacles.

The mix of characteristics highlighted in the Scale 21 report is the strongest indication yet that the IT industry needs to attract individuals with a broad set of skills.

The complete analysis of the results will be instrumental in portraying an up-to-date image of a constantly changing industry and could prove to be a vital tool in the campaign to attract the new recruits IT so desperately needs.

What is Scale 21?
The Scale 21 (Skills Learning Aptitude Environment in the 21st Century) project was set up to investigate issues and implement some of the recommendations proposed by the DTI Information, Communications and Media Foresight Panel last year.

During autumn 2001, a working group contacted members of professional bodies the British Computer Society, the Institute of Electrical Engineers, the Institute for the Management of Information Systems, the Institution of Analysts and Programmers, and readers of Computer Weekly to invite them to participate in a pathfinder study.

The aim of the research was to identify the underlying skills that have made members of the IT profession successful. It used a range of aptitude and psychological tests.

The ultimate goal is to create a skills "blueprint" that could be used to recognise these abilities among groups such as people on government-sponsored training initiatives or students and schoolchildren.

Who took part?
Between 15 October 2001 and 31 December 2001 computer workers and other qualified professionals took a series of online tests to provide the raw data for the Scale 21 report.

Respondents included IT professionals from City organisations such as ABN Amro and JP Morgan, public sector workers from local and national government, and self-employed contractors.

The deadline for submissions was extended to 16 January 2002 and during this time several Nottinghamshire schools were able to participate. For the purposes of this article some of the results from the schools have been omitted from the graphs.

Key traits of successful IT professionals
The Scale 21 report identifies the following as the key traits that most of the IT professionals who completed the profiling questionnaires seem to possess:

A relatively flexible person. Does not find adapting to change
too challenging.

Resourceful people are able to deal with life situations that require them to find solutions to uncommon problems. These individuals know where to turn for help, information or support. This decreases the risk of getting stuck or feeling helpless.
It is a highly valuable skill in a wide variety of situations.

Self-efficient people can trust and rely upon themselves. They trust their own judgement. They know it is not only acceptable to make mistakes but also necessary - it is the only way to learn.

Goal-oriented people are highly motivated. They are self-starters who are extremely focused and are not put off by obstacles in their path.

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