Published: February 18, 2016, Copyright (c) Sandy Elrick
In talking with peers in the Information Technology industry (Calgary) this week, one thing has become exceedingly obvious to me and my peers.
Information Technology as an industry must die.
It has become abundantly clear to many of us that IT is not longer valued as a career path by business (in its current form) as it once was. Why would we lament so? There are three key components to this perception.
The first is simply cost. Businesses have, over the last decade, sought to reduce and eliminate IT costs – the value isn’t there as an organization so they seek to outsource the functionality (whole or part) to offshore resources or someone who will do it for lowest cost (you get what you pay for, right?). What I can only perceive as near insanity is this perception by business that IT costs are always going to go down and become less when in fact, more and more of business is dependent on IT organizations guiding and providing (do you starve your muscles when you are a star athlete?).
It’s kind of like taking your German luxury car into a domestic dealership service department and asking them to maintain and recommend what to do to keep it running smoothly. It just doesn’t make sense to give a great vehicle to someone who is not as familiar with it and has to do a job but does not understand that their best may not be exactly what is needed, nor appreciated (you do them a disservice by giving them an unattainable goal). While it may work for a bit, it won’t last and serious issues may crop up.
The second component is investment. With the breaking of the traditional experience learning and mentoring model, IT as a whole lost the ability to adapt and pass along a lot of the wisdom of experience each organization acquired over time. Business also largely abandoned training, believing the outsourcing organizations would take on that cost (not so much). While some vendors and outsourcers do train, they only train in what is asked of them (specialty), not in the holistic manner that mentoring across disciplines (a loss of core values and expertise to see the forest for the trees).
So what used to be a diverse and capable workforce is now reduced to specialists (not altogether bad). You’ve lost efficiency and cohesiveness at the level previously experienced and expectations need to be reduced (again, not altogether bad as we reduced costs, right!). Add to that the continued reduction in internal IT staff at more organizations, there is less and less time and ability to coordinate said specialists, reducing IT effectiveness and value to the business.
When did business get away from supporting and expecting great results from its organizational partners? The IT industry has tried to respond to this by converging technology (make it more simple to use because that helps lower operating costs). This has succeeded in making it easier to procure, deploy, and use but much more difficult to support – requiring even more highly trained people to sell, deploy, and manage (super specialists).
The third piece is the ability of the labour market in the industry to renew itself and the loss of fungibility of said labour. At a time when many senior people are retiring or being laid off, we hear from business pundits that the biggest shortage of IT workers is going to come to a head sooner rather than later. We need to find more resources! We need to increase foreign talent pools and bring them in (ironic how it was ok to abandon funding local pools and now ok to embrace funding non-local pools)!
So what do you think our Canadian and American students who take in all of these indicators think and feel? They are not stupid. They see an industry which is reducing in value, is not sustainable, and difficult to make a long term commitment to. The question they ask themselves is “Why bother even trying to go into it?”. Short term they can do something with it but longer term, they need to break away from it or adapt a hybrid approach. The IT industry’s labour market is collapsing at a most critical juncture. The consequences have yet to be fully sussed out.
Questions of Sustainability
So, with the labour market model broken, what is a business to do? Well, for now, your India and other partners (they have hundreds of thousands of semi-qualified people who will do the best they can for the little money you will pay) will step up to the plate (as long as it is written explicitly in the contract you signed, right? They care for your business, right?). They have large pools of cheap labour, except when the folks that get qualified move up in ranks, that labour is no longer cheaper. Eventually, there will be a reckoning with those folks’ labour forces as well. What will business do then?
By that time (I figure this will occur around 2020), it is likely that those of us in senior IT career paths will have moved onto the business side or move out of IT totally. Our time has passed and we have moved accordingly. The landscape will be radically changed and perhaps business will have gotten what they wanted.
What did they want? Commodity IT of course! You pay for a service and it is up all the time, highly available, and as simple as going to a web page or app and pay for it. So has anything been sacrificed? Everything seems to have worked out, hasn’t it?
Side note: I still have fears that businesses have not fully accepted and addressed their needs in regards to data governance, records management, and information policies. They are very relevant pain points that need to be resolved before costs can truly come down. You cannot and should not keep everything forever!
Questions of Viability
It is not a question of sacrifice but more a question of viability. We are being pushed in the direction of lowest cost commodity and what we give up is control and quite possibly security. Some of our politicians have made some inroads in protecting our personal information and privacy. Great news for the little guy or independent. Not so great for business (lobbyists better working on the finer details of that global trade sharing agreement).
So how much do you trust someone half a world away to not sell your businesses secrets just to get ahead in their highly competitive environment? Do they respect your policies, records management, and data governance rules? Your North American rules do not apply over here in India by the way. You don’t trust China with your stuff currently either. Grifting and insider trading can and probably do occur because there is no jurisdictional protection of your financial rights nor businesses’ rights. At least the strength isn’t there (it may change). So are we sure someone high up or low down isn’t monkeying with your patent data, financial data, or customer database? Grim thinking if you let it sink in.
So what really happens now? Trust is great, proof is ‘there’ that nothing dubious is occurring, we can believe in that contract – huzzah! Well, if things go badly and you have enough political clout or money, your business can survive and fight for your rights. We see that in litigious cultures where justice is frequently trumped by dollars – if you can’t afford it, it’s not worth fighting for (build that war chest now). I know I have digressed a bit but I hold that other industries that are not under duress like IT will survive and support your business.
Engineering, Financial, Health Care, Governmental, and Union based industries are highly organized and highly protected. They are not currently under threat. How long though, before they are seen as the financial villains and they too succumb to the lowest cost practices already well established within our business practices. Will IT become the harbinger of doom to other jobs simply because someone can program a machine to figure out how to do that job?
Shame on IT for not sticking up for itself and letting business not see the value we brought to the table. Shame on us for not forming a strong industry body.
We are now reduced to a simple concept, or are we?
Transformation (Be a starfish)
Well, lets circle back to killing off IT as it is, right now. Do we accept and change or do we fight? Is our value diminishing or changing? Good questions and I hope people begin to start answering them. Leader O’ Leader, wherefore art thou?
To be pessimistic we have to acknowledge that what has been happening is inevitable and the cost to business cannot be reversed. Our society has accepted a model of IT as a service or everything as a service – we cannot change something so fundamental to our digital age. Why should we?
To be optimistic is to embrace change and to accept that Information Technology, as it traditionally stands, will no longer be – and that change is good. It is a symbol of progression, engagement, and a new rhythm. It is scary for a lot of people but we can support each other and adapt (remember your communities!). Dance, smile, and wave folks!
I don’t think our labour force needs to go quietly into the night, though. We do bring leadership and value and we do contribute in many ways that are core to business success. I encourage IT leaders to think deeply on the paths they have chosen and/or are beholden to without choice and to sing the praises of IT to their senior management. If you do not advocate for your people, your organization, who will? As members of the IT fraternity (after all, we are not one uniform group), we are much more than the technologies we bring to bear for business every day of every year.
We are gifted partners who bring business savvy, clear understanding of digital age changes, and core competencies that transform business. It comes down to efficiency, proper decision making, and leadership in any business. We deserve recognition for our contributions – toot our own horns for every win.
Any other effort is a real distraction from the core goals of any business. Really engage and consider the changes needed and embrace them, lest we miss the opportunities ahead of us. Like starfish, we are adaptable, resilient, and already on the path to change.