Electronic Data Systems (EDS) says that its employment of offshore IT technical people will rise from 9,000 today to 20,000 by 2006. It's just one outsourcing organization that is leading the IT trend. In the United States, unemployment in the tech industry is at a startling 6.2% and is estimated to continue to rise as the Dow floats above 10,500 and companies rebound from the recession.
IT as we have known it is a fading department within many companies. The electronic infrastructure, the collaborative work environments, the office productivity tools, and the worldwide high-speed networks: These elements are used today to transfer the jobs of IT support workers to the cheapest skilled labor forces in other countries.
And it's only just the beginning. As these labor forces ramp up their skills, full-blown commercial application development, systems analysis, and business services will quickly start to arrive on our shores as cost-effective solutions, often coupled with server platforms that will be so affordable that companies will find them hard to resist.
Consider that today the iSeries exists as a valuable legacy technology platform primarily because of its heritage of development investment. But what happens to the viability of the platform if those same applications come at a fraction of the cost on Linux? The iSeries as a platform may survive, but what about the value of your past iSeries-specific training?
Certain Job Positions Will Become Obsolete
Remember the once ubiquitous position of keypunch operator? Where did those positions go? The answer is that the job itself--except in the largest environments--disappeared between 1975 and 1989. Its demise was driven by technology advancements. Meanwhile, those individuals who held that position scrambled to "trade up" to new positions that their companies valued more.
This same cycle is happening again now. But this time, it's the next layer of skills: IT technical positions and many programming positions are heading offshore. Will those jobs become obsolete? No! But they'll exist in the cheapest, most skilled labor pools, and most of those positions will be located physically outside the United States.
What does this portend for IT as a department? It means that the silo of authority that once was called Information Technology will be radically altered. No longer will IT get the budgets, the brain power, the resources, or the attention that management once lavished upon this technical department.
What should an IT professional do? Focus on your knowledge of the organization's business first, position your technical skills as a secondary resource, and aim for the new positions as their titles begin to materialize.
Some Jobs Haven't Been Defined
IBM says that the purpose of the On Demand environment is to enable companies to focus on their core business processes. Those are the processes in which products or services are the key differentiator for the company. IBM says that this kind of business transformation is happening now in the largest organizations and that it will rapidly filter down to the small and medium business (SMB) marketplace.
Some organizations are embracing the On Demand IT model; others are embracing basic offshore IT outsourcing. But it's safe to say that none are abandoning their core business models that make them competitive and add value to their products. Yet, as IT reorganizes, many of the new jobs that will propel the organization toward its business goals have yet to be clearly defined with titles. So how can you prepare for a job that doesn't yet exist?
Hey, look! That's why understanding the real business of your company is so important. IT professionals need to re-examine and understand how their companies provide value--the core business value. Then, these professionals need to position themselves to play in that larger company arena. Stop focusing on the traditional IT technical skills for a while. Look up from the code! See what's actually happening in your organization.
When IT professionals successfully begin to embrace those core business goals, they'll be halfway on their journey toward transforming their careers.
Start Looking for Higher Ground
Coders need to look up from their code and ask, "What does the organization really need? How can I help to achieve it? How can I help lead my company to those goals on a practical, business-sense level? What are the business skills management will be looking for?"
According to some studies, positions like "business analyst" or technical titles like "programmer analyst" will ultimately follow the same trajectory toward offshore outsourcing. Remember, as the skills of offshore knowledge workers increase, so will the competition for the knowledge worker jobs. So the task of individuals within IT today is to create and promote real value-added business capabilities, on top of their basic technical skills.
For instance, a programmer who has worked for 10 or more years in ILE RPG needs to examine what real business expertise he has obtained. This may be difficult for job-hoppers or consultants who grew accustomed in the 1990s to marketing their pure technical skill in a variety of different industries.
These individuals need to reverse the trend that in the 1990s placed higher value on technical expertise and lower value on business acumen. They need to identify the common threads of business knowledge in the industries in which they have worked (e.g., retail, distribution, manufacturing, insurance) and choose the vertical area where that business experience will be most potent.
For instance: "I know the most about manufacturing and how products are designed!"
Then, these individuals need to create a new statement of value that hones in on that business knowledge. Obtaining new training is a part of this transformation.
So instead of saying, "I'm an ILE RPG programmer with 10 years experience working in product systems design," the new equation would prompt this same individual to recast his experience into a statement that says, "I have 10 years of business experience working in manufacturing on product design systems. I also know how to program in ILE RPG!"
Why is recasting the roles so important? Because businesses are looking for talent that focuses on their core business values: The IT tools that you have used to gain that experience are becoming secondary.
Today, the Lowest Bidder Always Wins
Remember, in this uncertain time, that past job titles are no longer milestones of a career: Every job title is merely a convenient label in this heady time of economic expansion. What organizations are looking for is the talent to help them build bridges to the new global economy. Yes, there still are technical tasks that need to be accomplished using the past skills of IT. But the jobs for accomplishing those tasks are going to the lowest bidder.
However, with your industry experience--and your past technical background--you may be the best person to identify exactly what those tasks should be. Performing those tasks may be outsourced to someone else: Defining them and managing their completion will require both business sense and technical understanding.
Don't try to compete technically with that lowest bidder in the equation: Embrace the equation and leverage the talent that you have.
Collaboration Versus IT Project Control
The new On Demand environment that IBM is pushing relies upon increased collaboration across departments within organizations and across business sectors between business enterprises. This collaboration often requires consolidating hardware and software suites, implementing standards, and upgrading and integrating legacy processes. At first glance, you would think this is the natural place where IT should play. Think again!
As services become outsourced, we'll see an increased demand for consulting from organizations that have specific offerings to accomplish these tasks.
Is it IT's job to compete against these services? Probably not! Evidence shows that even when IT makes a compelling financial case for doing something in-house, organizations are more focused on the financial benefits of the On Demand environment and outsourcing.
So what is the play for IT? The answer is to position the entire IT organization for collaboration. In a collaborative environment, IT acts as the facilitator for achieving business goals, not the engine by which those goals are achieved. For the individual IT personnel, knowing how the business executes its set of business rules creates a special value add that can--if identified to management--assist in the transformation of the organization to the On Demand model.
Does this mean that IT will control a project? Probably not! Instead, it means that IT will be an important facilitator for getting the project accomplished by identifying the external resources that will be needed and acting as one collaborative liaison to other departments.
Examples of Collaboration
Consider the following scenario: The Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act has mandated specific accounting guidelines that must be implemented by a particular deadline. The IT industry has quickly converged groups of services and consultants that can help organizations implement different tools to comply with the SOX law. But who will act as the liaison between Finance and the consulting IT groups? What other services are being proffered by the consulting organization? These are the areas where past IT experience can assist management at a higher level: formulating the projects, creating the collaborative team within management, and leading the group toward implementation. Your past IT experience can help the management team avoid the pitfalls of a failed project and help keep the consultants honest and on track.
SOX implementation is only one example where new compliance must be delivered throughout the organization under a critical timeline. In this new world of compliance, these kinds of critical implementations will come with increasingly regularity. In the old world of IT, the department would ramp up with personnel to tackle each project. In the new world, collaboration between departments and strategic outsourcing is the most cost-effective role for your skills. Brush up those business skills, work on your communication skills, train for collaborative environments, and focus on your company's core business processes.
Agile and Flexible
Retraining is definitely a prerequisite to beginning your transformation to take advantage of the new environments, but don't expect the organization itself to immediately provide it. Companies today seldom provide training for business requirements that they don't yet understand. And don't forget, this new environment is as new to your company officials as it is to everyone else. Retraining is, initially, going to be your personal responsibility. Nevertheless, let your management know your personal plan to move forward and see if they'll support it, but recognize that they probably don't yet know how to relate to that value that you are creating. If you are truly adding value to the organization, they'll start trying to figure out how to incorporate your growing business skills as they formulate their own plans to respond to the economic climate.
Expect that you're going to make numerous false starts as you begin to transform your career. Pride yourself on your flexibility and agility in dealing with these challenges. There are no failures in this free-for-all, just false starts.
Of course, if you have already found yourself outsourced or without a job because of this new economic imperative, you'll keep looking. But remember what happened to the key-punch operator jobs of days gone by. Don't look for the positions that you know are disappearing. Position yourself for the future, obtain the skills that make you most flexible and agile in this changing economy, and leverage your talents toward the next set of goals in your career.
The Punch Line
Remember the old joke about the drunk who lost his keys in the alley? Instead of searching in the dark, he wandered on his hands and knees until he was under the street light. A second drunk came to help him, and for an hour both of them searched on the pavement.
"Hey!" the second drunk finally said. "Your keys aren't here!"
"Not surprising," said the first. "I dropped them back in the alley!"
"So tell me again why we're looking here?" asked the second.
"The light's better!" came the reply.
As odd as it may seem, this is exactly where both IT professionals and management find themselves today. Both are grappling, searching for the way forward in a new global economy. The old job titles and old business roles have been dropped back in the alley. Management is under the streetlight, looking desperately for the keys to start the engine.
We have a choice. We can head back into the shadows, or we can join them under the light. We may end up walking home, but at least we won't be alone.