In my column last week, I focused on some tips that could help current IT personnel reposition their careers. My advice was to re-evaluate current professional skills and begin to stress the bottom-line advantage you can bring to the business. Specifically, I recommended that professionals not rely solely upon their technical skills--skills that were so hard-earned in the past. My argument was simple: You must have a specific business-based value-add to differentiate yourself from the overseas technical competition.
But what about individuals who are just entering the IT job market, individuals who are planning to specialize in software development or computer systems engineering? The opportunities for these individuals to obtain specific business skills are often limited within universities and colleges. Setting off into a jungle of competition within IT will be a significant challenge for them. What will differentiate their job potential in an already crowded employment market?
ITAA Workshop Charts the IT future?
Last week, the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) held a workshop in Arlington, Virginia, that attempted to address this very question. The workshop was devoted to identifying the skills and education that will be prerequisites for advancing IT in the current environment.
In attendance were leading software vendors, service providers, and representatives from universities across the country. Their message: "Multi-disciplinary backgrounds coupled with industry-specific skills will be the formula for IT success."
The Value of a Multi-Disciplinary Education
Marland Buckner, Federal Affairs Manager at Microsoft, stressed the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to education, saying that such an approach was significant to the hiring criteria of Microsoft. According to Buckner, Microsoft looks for employees "who can think about the silos in which they have been educated.... That is someone with skills sets significantly different than the traditional computer-science grad."
PeopleSoft, Inc.--which recently purchased J.D. Edwards--was represented by Vice President of Pre-Sales, Education and Government Steve Eberly, who indicated that diverse project management skills were more important to their organization than technical expertise. According to Eberly, the skill set of the current IT workforce has become too technically specialized, and it is those specialized, highly technical jobs that will move offshore. By comparison, an IT employee who is a "technical generalist" will find it significantly easier to add business value to the PeopleSoft organization, and those are the kinds of employees that PeopleSoft is looking for. With those skills at hand, PeopleSoft plans to approach industry-specific sectors with its software solutions.
Educational Institutions Adjust to New Requirements
According to some representatives of educational institutions at the workshop, colleges and universities are now struggling to develop multi-disciplinary tracts that combine technical accreditation with business-value disciplines. But at the same time, technical accreditation has become an important obstacle for many undergraduate institutions because technology changes so quickly. This rapid change often leaves these institutions with no clear measurement of the quality of the education they have delivered. They are hoping that by combining multi-disciplinary programs with IT technical skills, the student will have a wider exposure to creative problem-solving skills that are needed by business, regardless of the specific technologies upon which they end up working.
Is Technical Accreditation Required?
Meanwhile, potential employers are looking at technical accreditation as only one aspect of the overall job requirements for which they are seeking. A technical degree may allow the Human Resources department of a business to winnow through a stack of resumes. But the hiring manager within IT will be looking for much broader business values as well. One corporate liaison from National-Louis University, Trentwell White, said that accreditation does resound with HR managers. However, the person within IT who is actually hiring will want to know more about what a job candidate's skills and expertise are and how that candidate will add value to the organization.
Do Midrange Professionals Have an Advantage in Today's Employment Market?
In many respects, the current employment climate may actually favor the IT professional who came through the traditional midrange route. For instance, in the small and medium iSeries shops, many professionals arrived in IT after first working in other areas of the company. As their IT skills expanded--and as IT silos of authority became more rigid--these individuals learned to climb the ladder of IT success through technical specialization and certification.
Now, however, as this technical ladder is being eliminated through offshore outsourcing, these same individuals are returning to their business roots. They're seeing their initial love of business values as a basis for seeking new assignments within their organizations. How well they reposition their personal skills in this environment will reflect their flexibility and agility in the real world of business. Meanwhile, their past technical knowledge of both information systems and business systems is helping them to navigate in a very competitive job market.
Is Offshore Outsourcing the Final IT chapter?
Shortages of technical skills within the employment market tend to be cyclical in nature. So too do surfeits of technologists.
For instance, in the early 1990s, the advances in office automation productivity (read: Microsoft!) seriously depressed the IS employment market. As organizations downsized, the old silos of Information Systems (IS) departments began a painful transition to become the Information Technology (IT) departments we know today. That particular cycle placed a higher value upon PC-based skills and relegated more generalized IS skills to "legacy systems."
By comparison, today's employment market is witnessing the transformation of basic IT and programming skills to a commodity status. The value of offshore outsourcing is its price-competitiveness. But, as a solution for business, this trend has some serious potential drawbacks.
For instance, the security of a company's intellectual property (IP) will become an issue that will continue to grow. How do you secure your unique business value if all of your information infrastructure is being serviced by employees in another country, on someone else's payroll?
Business Complexity and Competitiveness
In addition, new technology and new systems will add increasing complexity to the IT service infrastructure. IBM says it's building an On Demand infrastructure that we can turn on like water from a tap! But what if your organization needs something else coming out of that tap as well? If an organization customizes that infrastructure, who owns and controls the flow of the information resources? How does the organization prevent the resource from being pirated by the competition?
Service profiles of individual organizations will become increasingly complex as new technologies are delivered. Yet expanding that service infrastructure to meet everyone's requirements will ultimately hamstring the IT service providers. These services will become the bottleneck of productivity; IT service providers will be unable to deliver the needed services in a timely manner.
Ultimately, the customization of the infrastructure--to meet specific business needs--will force companies to bring aspects of IT back in-house. Like the ASP experiments in the late 1990s, outsourced IT services can only go so far before they become exorbitant, unresponsive to demand, and dangerous to the productivity of the organization as a whole. When that re-evaluation cycle turns the corner in two years, specialized knowledge and technical expertise will once again gain currency within business organizations.
ITAA Predictions Lack Credibility
Remember, it was the ITAA that lobbied Congress for a substantial increase in H1-B visas for foreign workers just two years ago. They got their way with Congress by appearing to be "responsible" to the needs of the IT business community. However, in actuality, they were only positioning the IT employment market for the current debacle of offshore outsourcing.
Now the ITAA says it is being "responsible" again, by conducting these kinds of employment workshops. Time will tell how valuable their advice will be.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press, LP.