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To borrow a line from Salesforce Chief Digital Evangelist Vala Afshar, “IT is emerging in a role we’ve never seen it in before — as the ‘central nervous system’ of modern business.” In fact, 77% of IT leaders view IT as an extension or partner of business units rather than a separate function.

For a closer look at the blurring lines between IT and business units, we spoke with Damian O’Farrill, Product Manager for Sales Automation and Analytics at Autodesk. He brings an interesting perspective on the IT skill shortages companies face in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and what it will take to persevere. 

Q: There’s a lot of talk about skill gaps in traditional software development roles. But many companies are now looking for people like yourself — with a broader skill set beyond development — to bridge the divide between business units and IT. What can you tell us about that?  

The skills gap challenge I’ve faced in the past three or four years, especially in my role, is that we’re constantly looking for talent that’s not purely technical. You need someone with a lot of business acumen but enough of the technical training as well. You don’t need to be a developer, but you need to learn a little bit about CRM and a little bit of SQL.

There are developers that could fill some of the technical roles, but not this hybrid of advanced business analyst or admin that understands the business language and also speak the language of the developer to explain, “Hey, here’s why this isn’t working for us.” That’s what’s really missing — that intermediate part between a pure technical mind and a pure business mind. It’s a mix of business acumen, training, and experience. This combination of skills is what’s desperately needed, but not easy to find.

Q: More and more IT leaders are exploring citizen development — in other words, empowering business users to create apps using IT-sanctioned development environments. One study showed that more than three-quarters of IT leaders believe citizen development will transform or substantially impact their partnerships with business units. Once you have more people in these roles, bridging business acumen and technical expertise, what happens? Is it helping the company be more innovative or productive? What are the big benefits?

First, it’s how dynamic the team becomes. I’ve never been in a work environment with such a diverse team. My manager has a music degree, my counterpart has an undergraduate degree in art. Another is a biologist. And all of us — me with a communication background, him with an art degree, and her with a biology degree — we’re the ones tailoring the future of sales and marketing at Autodesk. We are a team that thinks outside the box.

As a product manager, I work with our team of developers. Being an admin, being in the trenches, it gives me the ability to build better requirements for them. As a citizen developer, you’re not afraid of the developer vernacular. You feel comfortable talking to them about, you know, “Maybe we can do this declaratively. We don’t need to go all the way to the coding to make this. Let’s think about it in a more configuration type of way.” It’s this agile mindset that’s allowed us to build a terrific team that’s been able to deliver fast, and deliver credible products.

As citizen developers, we have a certain naiveté that plays to our advantage. We don’t know what we don’t know — but we know enough to be dangerous. And that’s where innovation comes from. It’s this mindset of, “I know that there’s a limitation but let’s find a way around it. Let’s use this cross-functional expertise that we have and not just think in terms of system. Let’s think about research theories. Let’s think about how pretty this could be.”

Q: I came across a report the other day which said only 29% of IT organizations believe they’re excellent at keeping pace with technology trends. That’s maybe not surprising, given the pace of tech change we all experience just as consumers. But still, it’s a shockingly low figure for those who are meant to be leading tech innovations in business today. How do you approach learning, for yourself and your team? What’s the role of tech education, and how is that starting to change?

I can’t overstate the value of continuous learning. To give a personal example, back around 2009 I was teaching Salsa in Mexico and had this production studio. On a client trip to the U.S., I saw them using this thing called Salesforce. I was very interested to learn what it was, so I started reading about it. I started to get much more involved with the Salesforce community when Salesforce came to my school for a bootcamp and to show how to build an app, and I eventually got certified. That’s what really kicked off the whole sequence of events that drove me to my current position. By getting certified, I started volunteering for different organizations, implementing Salesforce, helping them with their marketing automation, helping them align processes to their system. And I kept training using Trailhead, when it came out.

In my spare time, I’m still learning on Trailhead. When I’m driving into work, instead of listening to music, I’m listening to a Coursera course or an ADEX course. Right now, I’m very much into AI and machine learning, and I learn a lot about that by reading. But it’s not until I get a problem in front of me, one that I can actually kind of manipulate the touch and work with, that my learning sticks.

You know, there are so many different learning styles. I’m in charge of the rollout- change management for our inside sales reps, and the feedback that I’ve had over the past three years is, “The pace of change is too hard for us. We don’t have a way to bite-size the product that you’re giving us,” which leads to a lower adoption rate. So, when I think about that, and the different styles of learning, it makes me think, “If I learn by doing — if I learn in bite-sized videos — why not use the same approach to rolling out products? Instead of a hundred-slide PowerPoint presentation, why don’t I give them a way to prove that they are learning?”

As human beings, we’re never going to be static. That’s what the Fourth Industrial Revolution requires — continuous learning. And proving that you have the will, the experience, and the maturity to grow inside an organization.

Damian O’Farrill is one of the subject matter experts we’ve been interviewing on the IT skills gap, low-code development, and citizen developers in the run-up to our TrailheaDX event, taking place on March 28–29 in San Francisco.

For more on these topics, check out these articles on shrinking the skills gap, the power of low code, and the next frontier of IT innovation — plus forthcoming interviews with Michael Krigsman and Jonathan Reichental.