Like being asked which record you would save from the waves on BBC radio's Desert Island Discs, being restricted to one option can really focus the mind.
At the end of an exhaustive Computing IT skills survey we posed the following question to the readership:
"If you were to advise a newcomer to IT to learn just one skill, what would that be?"
Whereas the rest of the survey revealed a strong consensus of opinion that Android, business intelligence (BI), SharePoint and cloud service management are among the technologies to watch (more of that in a future article), of these only cloud received a significant number of mentions as being of singular importance to the IT professional.
Instead of jumping on the prevailing bandwagons, the advice given by Computing readers was pragmatic, based on widely applicable, portable skills as opposed to trendy niches.
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Learn the lingo
"Learn a solid programming language like C/C++, Java or VB," advised one reader. "Everything else is likely to change to the next big thing."
Indeed, a recommendation to acquire programming skills was number one on the list, with Java the most mentioned language.
"Be flexible, don't get buried in coding wars, just go with the flow," said a reader. "But if you have to specialise, specialise in Java."
This remark is telling. Time and again, our hypothetical newbie was advised to remain flexible and adaptable, to keep options open. Arguably, Java is the language that meets this need most closely, as it is a key pillar of platform-agnostic and mobile programming.
Mobile application development represented a significant strand of opinion, especially in the form of HTML 5, which has been designed with cross-platform mobile applications in mind. This is logical given the proliferation of mobile devices that we have observed over the last two or three years, and the huge importance of web interfaces.
Centre of power
Elsewhere, the focus was on the datacentre, particularly virtualisation, networking skills (design, security and integration) and the cloud.
"Learn about cloud-based services and localised integration," said one reader.
"Network design and development including cloud computing," suggested another.
In fact, cloud computing was mentioned more than any other item, suggesting that, despite continued doubts and concerns over security and control (not to mention their jobs), many IT professionals see the cloud platform as a big part of the future.
Others advised newcomers to familiarise themselves with the Microsoft product set, specifically the .Net framework (including Visual Studio for web development), C#, and the SQL Server database.
While a few readers referenced data management and analysis tools such as BI, data mining and master data management by name, the more generic "data management" was a popular choice. The ability to properly marshal and analyse increasing volumes of data is a skill very much in demand.
Plenty of readers advise our new recruit to lift their eyes from the screen and engage with the world around them.
"The business drives IT. Know the business inside out. Without the business there is no IT!" wrote one.
"Communicate technical ideas clearly to non-technical colleagues," urged another, deftly illustrating the gulf that can separate the IT department from the rest of the organisation.
"Learn a foreign language," offered a third, darkly. IT professionals know that letting their skills slip, or failing to communicate their true value effectively, could see their jobs moving offshore.