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White hat hackers

Ethical hackers, a growing band of computer professionals, use their skills to work out of hours on projects benefitting society.

Don Christie, founder and director of Wellington’s largest open source service and cloud computing service provider Catalyst, is happy if developers and other IT professionals working for the firm moonlight as hackers.

Thanks to the media, hacker is a term usually associated with people who do bad things with computers. However, the word has taken on a more positive meaning in technology circles. In that world hacking is the art of taking things apart, then putting them back together in ways that are better or where they do something that was never the original designer’s intent.

Read the full story at the ANZ Bank’s Your World site: Meet the weekend ethical hackers.

Helen Sword’s Wasteline Test is a great online writing improvement tool.

You cut and paste your writing into a box, hit the button and the software scans your words.

The Wasteline Test counts and highlights the weak verbs, abstract nouns, prepositions, adjectives, adverbs and waste words. It then gives you a ranking from lean, through fit and trim all the way up to heart attack.

New Zealand academic Sword designed her test to help university students improve their writing skills. She has also written a book, The Writer’s Diet.

The Wasteline Test works just as well for most types of writing.

Marketing consultant Johnny Moore writes about “a creeping extension of the need for academic qualifications, the ability to write clever essays” in The Tyranny of the Explicit.

He says:

The intention is good, but the practical effect is to engulf people in explicit, complicated systems and reduce their freedom – based on an unconscious assumption that everyone is not to be trusted. We give ascendancy to people who are really great at theory and effectively degrade practice. I think its rooted in the idea that one person or a group of people can effectively oversee a system and control how it works with written instructions.

One aspect of this is the arse-covering qualifications provide. If, say, a marketing manager hires a copywriter with a degree in copy-writing, they feel they are not to blame if the writer fails to deliver.

There’s an incentive in most organisations to engage the best-qualified person for a task, not the most experienced, best skilled or highest performer.

The recession has seen Immigration New Zealand cut 44 occupations from its skill shortage list. The new Essential Skills in Demand list now features just 87 occupations. People in listed occupations can be fast-tracked through the migration process.

Many of the occupations taken off the skill shortage list are trades rather than positions filled by knowledge workers. On the other hand those remaining are mainly professional and knowledge-based roles.

Jobs no longer on New Zealand’s skills shortage list include:

  • Baker.
  • Bicycle mechanic.
  • Bricklayer.
  • Butcher.
  • Carpenter.
  • Dental assistant.
  • Motor mechanic.
  • Plasterer.
  • Scaffolder.
  • Screen printer.
  • Sommelier.

New Zealand’s Essential Skills in Demand Lists.

A press release issued by the London-based Work Foundation says employers are poorly equipped to weather the recession because they use workers’ skills and talents poorly, tie them up in rules and procedures, and give them little say over how they do their work. The link at the bottom of this post will take you to the full press release. While the press release is specific to the UK, Australia and New Zealand will be similar.

I’ve never heard of the Work Foundation. It turns out to be the reincarnation of The Industrial Society, which I have heard of. The name and business model were changed in 2002. It is an 80-year independent organisation that campaigns to improve the quality of working life and is interested in issues like work-life balance.  The board and directorate are people drawn from the real world of industry rather than academia.

The press release writer is keen to emphasis the waste this represents from an employer point of view. And rightly so. Showing managers how their wasteful behaviour has a negative effect on their business’ performance is one way to get to sit up and take notice.

But from an employee point of view this waste is even more disheartening. There’s nothing worse than working in a job where your skills are underutilised, you spend hours wading through bureaucracy and feel powerless to make changes — even ones that would obviously make a significant difference to the company’s performance. Frankly, employers who waste human resources this way deserve to fail.

The Work Foundations survey of the work-lives of 2011 workers found that:

  • 40 percent of employees have more skills than their jobs require
  • 65 percent of workers said the primary characteristic of the organisations they worked for was ‘rule and policy bound’ – though just five per cent said this was their preference
  • 40 percent said they had little or no flexibility over the hours they worked
  • 20 percent of graduates are in ‘low knowledge content’ jobs

There’s always a demand for key skills. When the corner finally turns on the global economic recession there will be a huge demand for technical expertise. That’s because few companies are investing in employee skills.

When they decide they need those skills, it’ll be too late to start training; so they’ll need to pay a premium.

Your mission is to capture that premium.

What are the skills that will earn you better rates over the coming years and how do you get them?

The skills employers most want break down into four main categories:

  • basic technical know-how;
  • formal education;
  • relevant business skills and vertical market experience; and
  • knowledge of specific hardware and applications.

Basic know-how

Basic technical know-how is about finding your way around equipment and systems.

In the past, employers would expect a narrow band of system or even application specific skills. Today’s employers prefer people to have a more catholic approach to technology. You’ll be expected to be familiar with a range of products. If  you have a weak spot, you should brush up your knowledge in that area.

While employers used to accept that new employees needed initial training and a settling in period. When modern employers hire workers, they expect productivity from day one. If you can’t make a start on the first morning in a new role, you may not get asked back for day two.

There are exceptions. Some employers recognise their systems are unusual and may give some initial training. However, recruitment specialists say this is becoming unusual and that one reasons for the persistent skills shortage is  employers will not hire people whose skills profile is a ‘near miss’.

Formal education

Of course, your track record and references are the best sign you have the right basic know-how. However, a good, relevant tertiary qualification is a better indicator.

Figures from Australia’s Graduate Career Council show a person with an undergraduate degree can expect to earn between $10,000 and $20,000 a year more than non-graduates.

In IT the gap between graduates and non-graduates is higher, for hourly paid contractors a good undergraduate degree is worth an extra $25 an hour.

People with higher degrees can expect to earn the same amount again. On that basis you can expect to cover the cost of a postgraduate IT qualification in about two years – though you might never recover the opportunity cost of the income you’ll lose while studying.

Business Skills

In the past, technical skills and some formal education would have been enough to keep the average knowledge worker in employment from now until retirement. This is no longer the case. These days employers demand IT workers also have business savvy. In some cases this is as simple as just having good communications skills – though generally they want more.

Part of the reason for this is the changing nature of IT. Historically IT projects were strictly backroom affairs, taking place in an environment, which developed, let’s say, something of a counter-culture. Most of the work was cutting code or tweaking applications and required little contact with users and only rudimentary understanding of the business processes being automated.

In recent years, IT has moved centre stage. Today’s IT professionals spend a lot of time with other workers, understanding how the business works is now crucial. Communications skills – we’re talking about the ability to share ideas and concepts with colleagues, not making two computers talk to each other – are at a premium.

If you’re thinking of getting a formal qualification, it makes sense to take a course that combines technical components with business modules. Many universities now offer postgraduate IT courses that embrace accounting, law, management sciences and other business disciplines.

Specific Skills

Of course the main reason an employer may want to hire you is to plug in-house knowledge gaps. Your specific skills are most important. Right now there is a still a huge demand for key skills.

According to Network skills in demand, pay well in down economy in Network World:

76 percent of CIOs are looking for desktop support skills

65 percent are looking for network administration skills

64 percent are looking for Windows administration sills

Database management, telecommunications support and network management are all still highly sought after.

Web development, virtualisation and business intelligence are in demand.

ERP implementation, .Net development and Linux administration are also hot.

As you’d expect any formal qualification featuring one of the keywords mentioned above is worth upwards of $10 an hour over other IT positions. If you can combine these with recognised business know-how, you could be looking at earning considerably more.

While vendor specific certification from the likes Microsoft and Cisco are unlikely to translate into large rate premiums, they will help make sure you get picked in front of rivals.

Finally, your practical experience is so important that it is worth making sacrifices to do some jobs purely for their CV value. Even a short-term contract in a responsible position  on a successful or high-profile project could be worth a premium with future employers.