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7 in-demand tech skills to master in 2021

IT pros who have worked with natural language processing, automation, and machine learning operations will have the most job opportunities in the new year.

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Now that companies are moving beyond the basics of artificial intelligence, IT leaders are looking for people with experience in integrating artificial intelligence (AI) with other technologies such as automation. Expertise in machine learning operations will also be in high demand as companies deploy more algorithms into production which requires ongoing care and feeding.

Leah Belsky, chief enterprise officer at Coursera, said many of the in-demand technology skills today will remain the same in 2021. This includes artificial intelligence, Python programming, and data storytelling. She predicts that what will shift significantly is who is learning technology skills and how they are learning them. 

“As companies navigate accelerated digital transformation caused by the pandemic, we will see an increased emphasis on driving technology and data science literacy across the entire organization, not just technical teams,” she said. “Short, hands-on projects will be particularly effective for enabling immediate application of skills.”

SEE: Inside UPS: The logistics company’s never-ending digital transformation (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Tech experts and chief people officers predict that companies will be looking for IT professionals with experience in specific areas of AI such as natural language processing (NLP) and the ability to connect AI operations with other business priorities like automation. For people who are new to the tech world, low-code platforms offer a lot of opportunities.

Here’s a look at the skills that will be most in demand in 2021.

Cloud native architecture skills

Companies are doing fewer lift-and-shift projects and building more products and services in cloud native architectures. For that reason, expertise in cloud foundations and containers will be more in demand in 2021, according to Accenture’s Cloud First Global Lead Karthik Narain. 

“This demands various levels of training and certifications as well as collaboration and engagement with partners,” he said.

Accenture invests nearly $1 billion every year to upskill people in new technologies, including cloud, artificial intelligence, blockchain and data analytics, among others. Narain said that since March, the company trained over 70,000 people in the tech services division in the hot skills needed by clients. 

SEE: Top cloud providers in 2020: AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud, hybrid, SaaS players (TechRepublic)

“This training process includes 15- to 20-hour reskilling modules, which employees already familiar with cloud can fast-track by completing an assessment,” he said.

Cybersecurity skills for the cloud

As more operations shift to the cloud, security concerns grow and change as well. Jon Clay, director of global threat communications at Trend Micro, said the rapid pace of cloud deployments is making it difficult for organizations to find security professionals who can integrate with their DevOps team to ensure security is built at the start of every cloud project.

“In 2021, we expect to see a sharp increase in demand for tech talent that has a unique skill set spanning both DevOps and Security operations,” he said. One of the most important security skill sets in 2021 will be cloud platform-specific security tooling knowledge.” 

Clay said that he has heard from clients that the introduction of cloud-based tools has changed the nature of their work. 

Alyssa Miller, cybersecurity advocate at Snyk, said she expects the cybersecurity skills gap to close as employers look to transferable skills over certifications. 

“Employers will begin to shift their mindset when it comes to hiring and identify relevant soft skills that are transferable to the cybersecurity sector and focus on hiring from those groups,” she said.

AI and automation skills

Artificial intelligence is moving out of the early adopter phase and into more mainstream use. This means that companies need employees who can lead more complex AI projects. Tom Clancy, vice president of learning at UiPath predicts that automation and AI skills will become increasingly critical to succeed at work. 

“A recent survey we conducted found that 70% of C-level executives at large organizations require employees to have—and are seeking new candidates who have—automation and AI skills,” he said. 

The UiPath survey also found that these skillsets result in business productivity as well as increased employee satisfaction and enhanced career paths. 

“Our data also found that 44% of executives feel these skill sets directly correlate to increased employee responsibilities, 64% to increased salaries, and 67% to overall better career advancements within organizations,” he said.

AI and natural language processing skills

Natural language processing is another skill set with the AI discipline that will be more in demand over the next year, according to Dialpad’s Chief Revenue Officer Dan O’Connell. Dialpad is a cloud communications company that specializes in conferencing and improving voice analysis. The company closed a $100 million in new funding in October to spend on its go-to-market strategy as well as research and development. 

O’Connell said that Dialpad looks for people with experience in speech recognition and NLP and hires a lot of new graduates as well. 

“We need more backend and front-end engineers to build out product features we have now, and our R&D focus is on the AI side,” he said.

O’Connell said the company has an internal training program as well but prefers to leverage existing talent in the market. That tactic has worked better this year due to the demands of the pandemic and the results of a longer term investment across the tech industry in NLP skills.

“We look for people who have experience in working with very large datasets and are comfortable solving for the complexity of longform conversations,” he said.

SEE: Natural language processing: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

O’Connell said he sees the next phase of AI tools supporting practical tasks, such as identifying to-dos that come from a check-in meeting or making voice conversations searchable.

“These tools will leverage the cloud and the speed of new GPUs and access to immense data sets in ways that solve practical problems,” he said. “Voice is the last offline dataset.”

Growing need for operational ML skills

Anand Rao, global artificial intelligence lead at PwC, said another sign of AI’s move to the mainstream is the growing need for operational talent to support machine learning projects.

In an ideal scenario, data scientists build the models and hand them off to an engineering operations team who will deploy the models and maintain them. This new job category will cover data operations and DevOps for machine learning.

“This is a somewhat more complex role as software doesn’t learn when the machine learning models do,” he said.

SEE: Chatbot trends: How organizations are leveraging AI chatbots (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Rao said that ML projects need data scientists to build the models and engineers to manage the production work.

“You need someone to manage both tasks and to have seamless transfer from the data scientists to engineering and operational people,” he said.

Product managers always in demand

Someone has to keep all these cloud and AI projects on track, which means that production management skills will be more important than ever.

George Abbott, head of product at Capital One, said these skills are a critical need for all great tech companies. To address that need, Capital One launched an internal Product College this year to train and connect the more than 800 product managers at the company. Employees take peer-led courses about strategy, tech, design, and leadership. 

Capital One also launched a Tech College to support a culture of continued learning and development. 

“The engineer-led learning hub gives our associates the tools and the platform to gain and master deeper technical skills,” Abbott said. “This will help us continue to challenge the status quo and innovate the technology that powers our business.”

The Tech College curriculum supports the company’s most immediate business goals, including software engineering, mobile, machine learning/AI, cloud computing, cybersecurity, and data. 

Expanding opportunities in low-code

Stephanie Louis, senior director of community and developer programs for Pegasystems, said there are lots of entry-level opportunities in the low-code market. Pega builds software for customer relationship management, digital process automation, and business process management. Louis said the growth in low-code platforms has increased the need to engage a broader business and tech community about how this approach to building software can be helpful. 

“You don’t need to have a computer science background to do this work,” she said. “It’s a huge opportunity for individuals and organizations to expand the impact and applications you can build.”

She said she looks for people who understand and appreciate the power of technology and who are curious and willing to invest the time to learn.

“We don’t need the skill set so much, it’s more the mindset,” she said.

The company’s Pega Academy offers free training for people who want to learn about low-code platforms.

Leon Adato, the head geek at SolarWinds, also said the most important skills in 2021 are not necessarily tech-centric.

“2021 will require IT professionals to have grit, patience, resilience, and a well-developed sense of humor,” he said. “Along with that they will also be required to be able to quickly change priorities, not wasting energy fretting about the time spent on the previous task.”

Jamie Coakley, vice president of people at the IT support firm Electric, said she considers liberal arts majors and those who studied communications for entry-level roles because the company places a high value on communication in the workplace. 

“You don’t need to have attended a technical school or majored in computer science to work in IT; if you are a curious learner, communicate well, and enjoy working with people and solving problems, this could be an incredible avenue to consider,” she said.

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