Monday, August 25, 2008

What's "wrong" with I.T. as a "career"?

Jason Hiner, on his Tech Republic “Sanity Check” blogs, has an interesting perspective today on five things that are “wrong” (he uses a less nice word) with information technology as a profession. The link is here. There are a few points well worth noting.

Yes, if you say you are a geek and not a socialite, people really expect you to play the part. You’re supposed to be able to fix anything, say with your home’s network router, when what you do at work is program COBOL. People gawk and sneer, and call you “professor”. They really did that with me in the Army in the late 1960s. That’s one reason why companies like IBM and EDS said, back in those days, that they needed “Molloy” dress codes, complete with stocking garters.

Another thing is, yes, you have to keep getting yourself retrained, and often at your own expense. Sometimes it’s necessary to travel and separate yourself from your life and focus.

But the real problem was the way the job market behaved. The “market demand for one’s services” could behave very much like a home price. The “war for talent” in the 90s became a bubble, that burst (and not just in mainframes) after Y2K. Hiner mentions offshoring and the H1B Visa issue. These matter, but part of the issue is that, typically, techies value their independence so much that they just won’t organize, so employers can divide and conquer, and treat them as disposable. There is a real trade-off between “hyper-individualism” and “solidarity” and it takes on moral dimensions.

Now, of course, we have the “reputation” issue. Employers want contractors who are “professional” in some narrow expertise area (which, surprisingly often now, can be mainframe-related) but, in this Myspace and Facebook age, individual professionals are unwilling to invest in a “reputation” that itself can evaporate like water ice on Mars in direct sunlight (not just off-shored, but off-earth – some day we’ll have to deal with that!)

The “independence” of techie-people leads to another problem, too, the long hours. Typically, they are salaried and put in infinite overtime to keep systems running 24x7. The hours are more irregular now than they were two or three decades ago when most of the online activity took place during business days on mainframes; now the end users are often home users. Technology is often thought of as not a good career for someone “with a family.” But, come on, then, what about medicine, nursing, the military?

I remember writing a short term paper for a Unix course at Northern Virginia Community College in 1995, and having to deliver a short talk, on "the job market for computer professionals". In those days, it was the "hands on" people who kept their jobs.

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