Editorial – Where are the Information Technology Jobs Going (as of the end of 2004)?


In my second “Do Ask Do Tell” book (online version here, purchase hard copy version here) I provided a chapter that analyzed what had happened as of late 2002 as for many of us the information technology job market had fallen off a cliff.


The picture, as a second Bush term begins, is still very mixed as best. The “obvious problem” is that many of the more routine jobs, particularly in the mainframe area and in areas like production control and basic business applications maintenance, have gone overseas, particularly to India. This is not necessary all a bad thing. How many programmers hated getting up in the middle of the night at the cry of a pager to fix “other peoples’ mistakes” in a nightly batch cycle (those infamous SOC7’s, or perhaps those SOC4’s that left no Abendaid dumps!)?  Now, some of that support takes place about half-way around the world, where it is daytime.


I developed this idea in my book, and the honest truth is that what we call “information technology” needs to be more like a real profession (law, medicine, engineering, accounting), where people who make good livings at it are licensed or certified and held accountable publicly for how they perform. Certification needs to be more than a vendor’s attempt to hook the industrial public on its software (that is not to say that some of the certification programs aren’t good—look at Sun’s java certification all the way back to 1999). It also needs to be more than a general all-things-to-all-people like what the Institute for the Certification of Computing Professionals used to offer.


Now I like laissez-faire society, but it seems that employers and headhunters have become obsessed with getting the most short term benefit from candidates in the shortest time possible, mixed with some curious inflexibility that reminds one of government. This has led to some strange anomalies—I get repeated emails and calls from headhunters asking me to submit resumes for mainframe state Medicaid MMIS contracts, always to find that my nineteen months (of MARS) back in the late 1970s in New York state is not enough.


What candidates need today is specific expertise. Look at any tech employment section in any city newspaper today and you can get an idea of what the market wants: shopping lists of very specific skills, particularly in some areas like security (often requiring high-level security clearance, which provides its own “Catch 22”), language paradigms, and even engineering. In some cases of software engineering, companies may actually be looking again for more formal mathematics and statistics education and expertise (consider how Google makes its money). Younger candidates now in college (or even advanced placement in high school, especially in mathematics and career center education) obviously have an enormous advantage, of being able to tailor their coursework to what employers want. I’ll add here that in 2005 I will be gathering more specific information about the quantity of various kinds of expertise needed and communicating it on this website. That is out of self-interest and survival. Another anomaly worth noting is that sometimes employers will desperately hunt around the country for one candidate with outdated mainframe skills, so sometimes there is a hidden reward for keeping up technical support expertise in areas like DB2, IMS, IDMS, CICS, SAS, Case Tools, etc.  Another dark horse, of particular interest to me, is combining content with technology so as to improve the quality of motion pictures, network television, educational programs, and other content-related distributions—and by “quality” here I am referring partly to educating the public to expect more from media companies than formulaic profiteering. Even considering all of this, it is often very difficult for a given “techie” to predict what areas of expertise (purely technical, or business systems oriented) will remain in demand for long periods of time, long enough to justify self-paid training of school. An individual should also listen to Donald Trump’s advice—consider what you enjoy doing the most, and think of how you can build a unique level of expertise where you know there will be some demand in specialized, niche-type businesses.


The same forces that enabled me to get published and moderately known as a writer destroyed my old I.T. career.  Broadband and outsourcing are not going away, although recent trends to move some work to rural domestic areas in a competitive fashion are encouraging. But what this comes back to is how employers and “computer professionals” should behave. Employees should develop specific expertise on the job, in areas that they (in an era of “Google hacking”) will be proud of publicly.  Employers should expect their employees to develop specific expertise vertically and insist that they do so, and employers should work more closely with universities and public school systems.  Career development and realignment invokes much more for older professionals than augmenting batch, procedural mainframe skills with client-server and “sexy” languages in a leisurely fashion, and older professionals will find that developing marketable expertise in object oriented languages (OOP) is much more difficult than it sounds (think of it as learning a new branch of mathematics—a “boot camp” approach may or may not help). Information “techies” (a bit of a pejorative now!) should be especially wary of staying in “support” or areas where they will not progress. The personal marketability paradigm has changed since the early 1990s and the first Bush recession, when the emphasis was on keeping people who could keep a shop running until it was merged with another one.  Truth be told, a lot of mainframe programmers in the early in mid 1990s were weak, often working for unstable companies, and had their careers artificially prolonged by the historical anomaly of the Y2K event. (I saw a lot of their resumes!)  Now, the emphasis is on progress, innovation and specialization—just as with doctors. It’s up or out!


©Copyright 2004 by Bill Boushka; all rights reserved subject to fair use.

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