Cyber threats, ongoing war for talent, biggest concerns for tech leaders

  • A new CNBC Technology Executive Council survey shows that cloud computing, machine learning, and software-defined security are critically important over the next 12 months.
  • Nearly half of survey respondents say finding enough talent is biggest risk over coming year.

Nearly half of CNBC's Technology Executive Council (TEC) members say that aside from cybersecurity threats, the biggest risk they face over the coming year is finding enough of the talent they need. And in an effort to expand that pool of candidates, respondents say they have even eliminated requirements that applicants have certain types of academic degrees in order to get hired.

These are just some of the findings of CNBC's most recent quarterly survey of TEC members. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, ongoing remote work, and headline-making cyber breaches such as the SolarWinds hack, a majority of tech leaders tell us that cloud computing, machine learning, and software-defined security are critically important to their organization's tech strategy over the next 12 months. Half said that artificial intelligence is also high on their list of critical issues. Interestingly, respondents also named as important the development of energy transition technologies, as well as collaboration tools around cybersecurity. Of little importance to these tech leaders right now: biochips, nanotechnology, and autonomous vehicles.

Finding the right talent

When it comes to talent, 44% of respondents said that finding enough qualified employees to fill open positions is the biggest risk they face over the coming year. An almost equal percentage say the task is just as difficult as it was a year ago. To close the skills gap, companies said they are trying a variety of strategies, including building flexible, on-the-job training opportunities (61%); rewriting job descriptions or job titles (42%); creating an apprenticeship program (39%); and eliminating requirements that applicants have certain types of academic degrees (24%).

Some other pathways to finding the right talent: easing location restrictions; gamification of training; and prioritizing the search for candidates with a diversity of career backgrounds. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the respondents said that in the past year they've filled open technology positions with candidates with liberal arts degrees. An equal percentage have taken internal candidates from non-tech teams. About half of tech leaders have hired people with no college degree at all.

Where the money is going

A little over 60% of survey participants said their company is ahead of the curve when it comes to investing in new technology, and 35% said they're about average. Leveraging the data that comes from those tech investments to glean customer insights is a different story. Slightly more than half of respondents said their company is about average when it comes to this task, but nearly 40% said they're ahead of the curve.

Defending against hacks

Three out of four respondents said that their company's board of directors has had a formal discussion about the SolarWinds hack, its aftermath, and the broader cybersecurity implications that have arisen from it. Nine percent said their board hasn't discussed it yet, but that it's on the agenda for the next meeting. Even amidst all that discussion, 67% of tech leaders said the hack will have no impact on the pace of cloud adoption, and just 15% said it would actually accelerate the adoption of cloud-based software applications.

Nearly 75% of the tech leaders in the survey think the government's response to the SolarWinds hack and its aftermath has been average or fair and not a single respondent said the response was excellent. As these leaders look ahead to the coming year, 33% say the chief technology priority for the Biden administration should be defining a national cybersecurity protocol. A little over 21% said controlling the spread of disinformation on social media platforms should be the No. 1 tech priority, and 18% believe it should be leveling the playing field for U.S. companies operating in China. A smaller percentage said re-expanding access to H-1B visas for high-skilled workers (15%) and protecting consumer data privacy (3%) should be high on the administration's priority list.

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