Monday, July 16, 2007

So why did I remain an individual contributor so long?

A fair question about my background might be, I spent 31 years in the conventional IT world, but why didn’t I “advance”?

In fact, I had direct reports, as a project leader, just once, in 1988, during my last six weeks at Chilton Credit Reporting (aka TRW aka Experian now) in Dallas. But I had already determined that I should leave the company because of political and merger-related circumstances, thinking I was stretching my luck if I sat if out for the severance if I could get a job elsewhere. I came back to Washington DC and worked for a health care policy consulting firm (now Lewin) for 18 months before going to Uslico, which would be absorbed by NWNL – ReliaStar (1995) and ING (2000).

My career started out in operations research and defense (Navy Dept) within the Univac world (1108, 1110, etc). I worked for Univac in marketing and doing benchmarks for a year and a half. I moved into the commercial area by going to NBC (National Broadcasting Company) in New York City in 1974, to work on their general ledger application, in a Univac 1110 shop. Then the big deal for career employability was to “get IBM.” So I went to Bradford National Corporation and worked on Medicaid MMIS for New York State in 1977. I stayed there for 19 months and left, in retrospect quite prematurely, to move to Texas in early 1979. There I worked for the Combined A & B Medicare Consortium (CABCO), hosted by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas.

My intention there was to prosper and advance. The environment was to be IBM, IMS and CICS, the preferred environment of the day. However, because of political infighting the project failed. I got a stable programming job at Chilton in Dallas, working on daily and monthly billing, but the environment was less desirable, being Datacomm DB and DC, now no longer factors in the job market.

In the 80s, with all the mergers, leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers toward the end of the decade (in an environment of falling oil prices and overbuilding and real estate recession in Texas) companies were already starting to flatten their organizations, with fewer layers of management and larger spans of control per manager. The manager or managing project leader was considered more vulnerable to layoff, often, than the “can do” programmer who did the nightcall and kept the production systems running.

The mentality continued in the 90s, and the big demand for mainframe programmers for Y2K picked up around 1997 or so. The culture very much supported the idea of a career as an individual contributor or perhaps a team lead without direct reports. After Y2k and the first Internet bubble burst in 2000, the market started to tank, and then 9/11 and the accounting scandals or Enron and Worldcomm (and depressed stock market valuations in 2002) really killed it. As the market recovered slowly, job descriptions (especially state government contracts) became much pickier. Since about early 2006 the job gig requirements have loosened a bit, possibly suggesting increased demand, and that seems not entirely clear yet.

Now, with the influence of the Internet and the schizophrenic reaction of employers to individual user generated content and social networking, which can produce publicity conflicts, the whole attitude is mixed and hard to predict. Employers (and the headhunting staffing firms that they use) are uncertain as to what they really need. But this could be a great time to be in college for a student who plans his course work and internships carefully and focuses on the skills that are obviously in demand (security, architecture, OOP, and especially “connecting the dots”, a theme that I talk about on the other blogs.)

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