To Be or Not to Be: The State of IT Jobs

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Recent news articles are rife with confusing--and often conflicting--reportage on the state of the IT job market.


On Friday, May 23, I participated in the commencement ceremony at Sarah Lawrence College. I was awarded a Master's Degree in Health Advocacy with all the rights, privileges, and honors pertaining thereto. Me, the anthropologist turned retail executive and then IT systems analyst, consultant, and industry analyst (the latter for more than a decade) and now health advocate. (In over 25 years, I have reinvented myself several times.) Today, IT professionals should expect to reinvent themselves throughout their careers. This is critical to ensuring job security. The IT industry is dynamic; so too must the IT professional be.


At graduation, Jessica Lange, the two-time Academy Award winner, gave a remarkable and rousing commencement address in which she drew political and societal comparisons between the 1960s and today. Her speech was inspiring and rich in detail as she described how she, too, has reinvented herself over the years.


It seems to me that when we look at the state of IT jobs, we fail to do so in a valid historical context. Instead, we may compare year over year or maybe decade over decade, but we do not consider the context--the economic, political, or social climates. We also don't consider the industry vertical, the maturity of the IT organization (i.e., is IT a drone organization or a bona fide line of business player?), or the geography and demographics in which we are analyzing the state of IT jobs. We seem to view the IT job market "in vitro" as a static entity.

The State of IT Skills: Gap, Shortage, or Hype?

Industry pundits love to predict with great pomp and circumstance what the IT industry, the job market, etc. will look like in three to five years--or even a decade. Somehow, college-bound budding IT geeks, COBOL run-time veterans, and all those in between are expected to be on the same page at the same time. The pundits and the media have captured our attention and either have us spellbound or running around like we have one foot nailed to the floor deciding what our career strategies should be. Like Darwin in his Origin of Species, our culture and society think that there is only one species of IT animal, with several subdivisions, and a traditional career path trajectory--that is, management. (Ever try to explain to your parents what you do for a living? "Oh, OK, so you work with computers!" Good grief!)


Newsflash: The fact is that many IT professionals (at least in the early days) did not necessarily study computer science. Many, yours truly among them, evolved into IT from other disciplines entirely, such as engineering, the social sciences, and the arts. And I believe that is why the information age has evolved so quickly and with such impact--because while the "scientists" were saying such and such a thing can't be done, the rest of us airheads were like "what a concept; let's go for it"--regardless if a thing was or was not scientifically couth.


Some well-written and enlightening articles have recently explored the IT job conundrum.

Statistics and the Truth About IT Jobs

As we all know, the truth is not always borne out by statistics. Consider that when unemployment statistics are released, it is only the people who are collecting employment that are reported; those whose unemployment has run out are not included in the count. Many IT professionals who have struck out on their own as consultants may not be included in IT employment statistics. And it is also likely that the jobs that cross over from IT to line of business are not included. Many larger organizations have entirely revised job descriptions, including alternate and innovative career paths that may or may not be on the statistical radar. 

So What's Hot?

Many media mags suggest that senior-level Java/J2EE and .NET developers are the hottest ticket today. Others point to security specialists. Well, duh! First of all, it's been eight years since 911, and cyber-terrorism is no longer science fiction.


Equally as important--though not in the literature I perused--are the disaster recovery architects and IT regulatory compliance professionals (not to be interchanged with the corporate Chief Privacy Officer and the corporate compliance legal eagles). IT needs its own privacy/security/compliance officers.


In the April 24, 2008, article entitled "The 10 Hottest IT Jobs in Demand," Ericka Chickowski notes that business technology professionals are in demand. This is a point I have been making for 20+ years: It's not just IT skills for IT's sake; it's an amalgam of IT skills and business acumen-and oh, yes, the dreaded knowing how to communicate effectively. I know IT professionals who walked into their jobs knowing more about the business than the business people did. They then proceeded to deliver exactly what the business really needed while trimming their own budgets and never having to "prove" the value of IT because they had already developed this Zen with the business.


A great man once told me that even if you have not attained a certain level or obtained a specific title, you should behave like someone in that position. In the case of the aforementioned IT professionals, they were proactive and gave the business what it needed to move ahead. The real news is for IT professionals to shed the myopic mindset, forget about the glass ceiling, and think in terms of removing the fourth wall--that is, work within the box to bring about change, but think outside the box.


In her article "IT Labor Shortage or Not, Gaps Remain," Chickowski notes that one reason many IT managers decry the paucity of IT skills is that they seek wunderkinds with more integrated technical skills than a computer-make that a System i. Moreover, in their myopic quest to find the proverbial technical brainchild, they overlook a few key criteria, such as the candidate's demonstrated business track record and their own willingness to provide a salary commensurate with the person's experience. Employers often believe, mistakenly, that if they continue to develop an employee's skill set, the employee will jump ship. The fact is that employees jump for other reasons. If employees are treated with respect, paid a competitive salary, and given the opportunity to continue their education in a manner commensurate with present and future career prospects in the organization, it is likely they will have a long and rewarding tenure. And the company will benefit.


Today, employees don't want a checkerboard resume. They also don't want to jump from one employer to another and hence one insurance provider to another (and then from one physician to another) because of the Draconian practice of shackling one's insurance coverage to the employer. Employees don't want to deal with IRA and 401 (K) rollovers, and they do want decent vacation, personal, and flex time.

In Conclusion

Unlike most countries in the developed world, it is not unusual for Americans to continue to reinvent themselves. It is not necessary for IT professionals to align their careers with their employers or vice versa. If IT management truly understands the business agenda, works in tandem with its HR brethren and their employees to develop realistic and business-aligned job descriptions, carves out career strategies with milestones, and delivers on their promises, then perhaps the gaps would close and the skills shortages would disappear.