Let's Lead with the Good News on IT Jobs
A poll released last week found that "92 percent of those surveyed were very concerned or somewhat concerned about joblessness"; those in Silicon Valley have good reason to be concerned, as employment there still struggles back toward pre-recession levels. But other regions report more encouraging signs.
Let's therefore lead with the good news: "the high-tech sector is providing most of the excitement in this floundering, mind-boggling bad economy", in the words of blogger Rick Smith in North Carolina, where IT unemployment is half the overall average – and where there are actually more IT jobs held now than there were two years ago. Nor is this good news limited to one region: "Job postings for finance technology professionals on eFinancialCareers are up 24% compared to last year" and have risen consistently for the last four months, according to Melanie Rodier on WallStreetAndTech.com.
Moreover, there's growing recognition that the first impression that's made on any prospective customer today—by any company, in any business—is likely to be made by a piece of code, rather than a person. If you want your best salesperson to have any opportunity to make a pitch in person, the prospect had better be engaged rather than discouraged by the first encounter with the company's Web site or call center; if a company is shopping for call center staff on price alone, which may be poor economics no matter how "flat" the world may be, that company had better be managing and supporting that staff with state-of-the-art systems (perhaps including salesforce.com's Service Cloud, which for some reason comes to mind).
When every company is thus dependent on reliable, even elegant technology, is there any such thing as a company that's not "high-tech" in character? And is there any company that can ignore Bob Warfield's warning that "once you have bad programmers, you're doomed"?
If companies have cut their payroll during the past two years, one can only hope that they kept their best people instead of merely their most senior or their least expensive: as they rebuild their staff in coming years, they should bear in mind Warfield's admonition that "99% of the time people seem to regard hiring as a temporary distraction from what’s really important, such as delivering a product. But hiring the wrong people will cause you to deal with more kinds of Hell for longer than any architectural mistake you can possibly make."
Well, then: if you're hiring, or hoping to be hired, what are the skills that ought to be top-of-mind – to build or to find?
For IT people of any age and any career stage, Mary Brandel at Computerworld has suggestions: those who will graduate in the next few years, she warns, must be prepared for a world in which IT people will be business process engineers rather than merely custodians of the IT stack. She quotes one IT executive as warning undergraduates that "colleges are in continual catch-up mode...about five years behind where they need to be" in preparing students, who should take the initiative to seek internships and other opportunities to go beyond academic programs. Those already in the workplace, she continues, should be taking affirmative action—so to speak—to build their understanding of connectivity, especially ubiquitous real-time collaboration, so they can offer seasoned leadership to critical social initiatives reaching customers and workers of all ages.
It's vital to recognize the need to keep building skills throughout the course of a career. Brandel quotes David Buzzell, CIO at The Sedona Group, as propounding a rule of thumb that one should set aside 3% of time and income for continuing self-education. (Tell your significant other that this is why you need that iPad.) Anyone who thinks that what they've done is more important than what they know should consider the warning of Russell Baker, whose New York Times column forecast in 1964 "the inevitable twentieth-century defeat of the...unschooled." (In this, Baker echoed a 1948 warning from Norbert Wiener, but you've heard that one from me before.)
Once upon a time, "a hungry man with wit, gall and negligible experience could fake his way" into a decent job, wrote Baker in a column soon to celebrate its 50th birthday: in painful contrast, he quoted then-contemporary want ads from technical centers like MITRE, with its rhapsodic invitation to "systems men" to "think in terms of subsystems that could be a far-flung sensor network"; from companies like Hughes, with its job descriptions including "Determine systems requirements...to carry out necessary technical direction to assure system integrity." Fifty years later, we call this "a job you can only explain with PowerPoint." Or fail to explain, as the case may be.
But that's another discussion, for another day. This week, this month, this year, let's focus on finding or filling the jobs of twenty-first century tech.
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