Thursday, February 05, 2009

If someone asks me (an "older" IT person), "why didn't you 'advance'?"

I suppose when somebody looks at my long “professional” resume, they will ask, in retrospect, “Why didn’t you advance?”

In fact, in spring 1988 in Dallas, I did. I was a “group leader” of the monthly billing team for a couple months, and then a project leader, which gave me one direct report. The way it happened is that the boss switched me with another team member to make me group leader, and then gave me someone else when I became a project leader.

We had already been told of the TRW merger (this was at Chilton Corporation, a credit reporting company in Dallas, now long since spun off as Experian). There had not been layoffs yet, but there was already talk of incentives to day, and of decommissioning bureaus and eventual shutdown.

Why did I leave then? The job market in Dallas, given the real estate and savings and loan crash then, was not good, and I had talked to headhunters about returning to the East Coast, where at the time things were hopping. I thought I was “stretching my luck” if I stayed.

Had I stayed and taken the incentive to stay, I would have landed in the Dallas job market in January 1990. I would have kept the condo. But maybe I would have left and wound up with the same job I eventually took in Northern VA in 1990, which led to my last twelve years in conventional IT.

I used to say that I did not like the idea of being in “management” (or “being groomed” for it) without the skills of people who worked for me. Even one chess playing friend thought that by now “I managed people.” In the 80s into the early 90s, marketability consisted of IBM, COBOL, JCL, but particularly IMS and CICS. But many shops still needed assembler (like life insurance companies still running CFO from 1962! and even ISSUCOMM for new business, which now seems like a bizarre world of its own, with all the self-referencing record trailers). In fact, as late as the mid 80s some companies (even Chilton) had to convert applications from IBM’s old DOS to MVS.

Throughout my career, I did have managers who were perceived by subordinates as “non technical.” Toward the Y2K event (ah, those prosperous Bill Clinton years!), formal project management came into use (with various software packages, including Microsoft’s own).

In fact, one problem I encounter looking at USAJOBs (for the federal government) today is that most positions (if they aren’t networking and hardware support) look for formal project management and budgeting experience (because the actual coding is done by contractors). Making and monitoring user test plans is a sought skill, as is supervising implementation, but these are perceived as quasi-management skills with subordinates.

The “revolution” towards end-user computing, PC’s, and Internet applications, with heavy use of object-oriented programming came on very quickly. Older professionals were typically not able to adapt quickly to a “new way of thinking” about software and code internals, and IT fragmented quickly into a myriad of areas and niches where focused expertise was necessary to remain employable – and these areas could again morph quickly and become obsolete. Some market in older niche mainframe areas, as we’ve noted, would remain but seem unpredictable.

I’ve spent several years looking into the nuances of the free speech issues (in areas like censorship, “reputation”, copyright, trademark and domain names, downstream liability exposure, etc). I do believe I have something to offer to the Internet software world. But I would have to tap into the world of project management. There is no way anyone can master all the hands-on skills required oneself for this.

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