Your IT Career: The “Unofficial” Guide to How It Works
I can still hear the words ringing in my ears fifteen years later: “Get into computers my son, it is the future.”
These are mom’s famous words. It came to me when I finally decided that a BA Theology will just not cut the mustard for getting a job in a “reverse-apartheid” post Verwoerd, South Africa of the early nineties.
Why am I telling you this? Because, I am of the opinion that the majority of IT Professionals like me, probably did not actively decide to make IT their career. It came later. IT chose me. I did not have much of a choice.
Most IT Professionals still struggle years later to find their place in this business. A business that is forever changing. For most, their desperation is not much different from the first day when they set out into the big wide world of career, wife, mortgage and credit card debt. A constant race to keep up. As soon as you get to know your way around one technology, or job, then they change it!
In this Blog post I will aim to provide some brief insights into the history, current way, and a slight glimpse of the future of the IT career. I hope to change the insights of those who are still thinking that IT is easy money. This entry should be of value for those contemplating a career change away, or towards the IT industry. Lastly, it should provide those not in IT some appreciation on why IT people do what they do.
Well, are we in the IT (Information Technology) or IS (Information Services) Industry? This is frankly not a question worth too much time. In short, the Information Technology Industry (IT) provides the ingredients for Information Services (IS). A variety of these ingredients can be consumed by a customer individually or collectively. Customers can be corporate or individual. The ingredients include technology, capability or people, and ultimately services - a combination of the first two.
The “Good” Old Days
Back in the old days it was better to first get your education, before you touch “The Machine”. People thought that computers were complicated. Little did they know what lied ahead.
I vividly remember that studying computer science at University was a complicated mixture of electronics, maths, communications, punch cards, printouts, and magnetic tape.
Analysts designed programs on paper. Programmers executed what Analysts specified on punch cards - more paper. Systems were closely guarded by ruthless Operators and Administrators that fed “The Machine” with paper. Computer time was booked months in advance, and key projects included upgrading of the air-conditioning and power reticulation to keep the beast from overheating. Programs ran for days, and it was an apocalypse to have a batch-run failure.
In those days computers were for grownups, costed millions, and they were three stories high. This, naturally meant that only the smartest, trusted and esteemed colleagues were allowed near it. Roles were clearly defined, and you dare not step out of place, or it can all come down in a smoking heap.
One day during the seventies, it all got changed by a bunch of University dropouts in a garage,
Make Money First
The birth of the PC (Personal Computer) unleashed computing to the masses.
Universities were still punching cards when Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston VisiCalced their way into 1978. Thereafter, things started to move too quickly for structured classic establishments like Universities. It was every man for himself.
By the time the first PC millionaires were born, a high school kid and his PC knowledge could earn more that University graduated Computer Engineers with 20 years experience in the industry.
With the acceleration in technology came role ambiguity. No longer were the lines clearly drawn between operator, administrator, analyst and programmer. The PC required personal agility, and with its inherent instability it carved a path into organizational corporate life. It brought with it the do-it-yourself “school kid” techie, open plan offices and the horror of horrors: a world without secretaries!
For a while executives held out. Eventually, they had to learn how to use a keyboard, type their own memos, and download email. The secretaries that survived the PC became executive assistants, and the rest of the workforce were assigned to 4 by 2 boxes with Microsoft Windows for "entertainment". The age of the “Knowledge Worker” (another word for email slave) dawned on us all.
The eighties and early nineties saw a dramatic change in the way IT was managed, and since then we are still struggling to get the do-it-yourself, my-tool-is-better-than-yours techie mentality out of the system.
Division of labour, clearly defined roles, value driven outcomes, incremental process innovation, and career satisfaction literally went out the window with Windows, and many organizations today are still struggling to come to grips with managing their IT.
Many IT Professionals are still struggling to define what it is that they are really meant to be doing each day. Most started their careers off in ambiguous IT roles, and this remains the status in many IT organizations world-wide. IT departments were seen as alien to the the organization, managed as costly risks, and staffed by too young, overpaid clever propeller-heads that speak a language no normal person understood.
How did you get into IT during this time? By knowing how to use a technology or tool few others dare to touch. And this knowledge you did not get at University. If your employer did not pay exorbitant fees to get you trained, you had to do it yourself.
IT Professionals were hired based on their knowledge, experience and skill in a a particular tool or technology. The Professional’s ticket to a big salary and a flash new car was to catch the right tool wave, and you should be fine until the next one came along.
With the advent of the Internet this process was just accelerated. Pre-2000, the frequency of waves accelerated greatly, until it crashed on the beach of the DotBomb.
Then Came Liberation and Desperation!
Business learned their lesson: “Trusting a bunch of unorganized, gadget wielding, evangelical, propeller-heads with millions, is a sure fire way to guarantee disaster and bankruptcy, with nothing to show for it.”
Suddenly, IT Companies were not printing the money they used to do pre-Y2K. IT Departments were down sized and told to clean up their act. Most departments are still struggling with this, including IT vendors.
We all know that technology is enormously powerful in giving a company a competitive edge over competition, or re-inventing and breaking in new markets, but customers became more value focussed. Now, unless it is crystal clear that the impact of a technology solution serves a significant business purpose, then a company will rather go without it.
The company brakes has come on so strong that consumer home technology adoption rates have outpaced the most aggressive corporate technology investor.
For example, it is now a big frustration having to use the office PC. It is behind the home PC in almost every way. No Skype, limited Internet access, no sound, no DVD writer, disabled IR port, Office 2000, and less. And then there is the never ending stream of email.
For the IT Professional, life in IT became hard. It is a constant battle between fighting off the next worm or virus, keeping fragile application architectures alive, and justifying an upgrade or enhancement in triplicate to the Financial Director. Then there is the constant re-structuring, only to be restructured again in six months time, and again six month thereafter. A sure give away indicating that we don’t really know what we are doing.
IT people are no longer loved and admired. It is a never ending task to justify your keep, do more with less, and escaping the next re-organization, outsourcing or offshoring.
Gone are the days of innovation, acceleration, instant IT millionaires, quantum leap solutions, consulting kwaks, and silver software bullets. Thank heavens we still have the Internet. Thank heavens for that!
I am of the opinion that most IT vendors (not including the product companies) have resigned themselves to “body shopping” IT professionals for these very reasons. It all became just too hard.
The Future of IT Careers
Now, more that ever IT Professionals and Management are forced to clean up their act.
The pressure is on to re-invent ourselves, evaluate our options and redefine our roles. The IT Profession has to leave behind its teenage years, and grow up.
I.T. needs to become a profession with:
- Clearly defined roles.
- Commonly accepted and practiced management frameworks.
- Accredited role based training and apprenticeships.
- And, a clearly defined purpose of adding value to its consumers an their businesses.
No longer should IT people be selected purely on the knowledge and experience they have with tools, but they should be selected based on their capability to fulfill their role in the IT Organization.
Managers of IT need to carefully consider the role they are, and will be, playing in the future of improving the track record of IT delivery.
It will become more and more important for IT Professionals to specialize, not in a tool or technology, but in their contribution to the industry and to the team. The role can be as Analyst, Designer Implementer, Manager or Operations and Support.
Tools and technologies come and go. Some faster than others. The ability, knowledge and experience to work within the standard IT organization and organizational frameworks will set you apart from others.
Where do you go to learn this? Not so easy I am afraid. Like most things in IT this knowledge is also accelerating beyond the ability of training institutions to keep up.
The best advice I can give today is to go for a formal education background - back to the good old University qualification. They know how to refine knowledge over time, and they can teach you just how to do that. The rest is up to you.
The Internet is your best source for detailed knowledge on the frameworks, roles and processes.
Thirdly, hang out in places where you can learn from others.
Lastly, don’t stop sharing your knowledge and learning. Contribute to the learning of others. Publish. Blog. This is the only way we can support each other in this ever changing and exciting business. The Business of I.T.!
Hendrik van Wyk.
This entry was published in 2006. Social media, Cloud computing and more recent trends are again changing the IT career. Stay tuned for future Blog entries covering these latest trends.