What is the future for real IT professionals?

by Frank 21. October 2012 06:00

I own and run a software company called Knowledgeone Corporation that produces an enterprise content management solution called RecFind 6. As such, our business is the design and programming of complex, heavy-duty application software. This means that we do the hard stuff, including all of the invention, and that I need really clever and innovative and productive IT people (mainly programmers) to work for me.

I have written previously about how hard it is nowadays to find the quality of people I need, see my previous blog entitled “Where have all the good applicants gone?” However, there is an even bigger problem in our industry with an ongoing fall in standards that began way back with the Y2K problem in the late 1990’s as everyone panicked about the problem of date handling once the year 2,000 clicked over.

The problem was basically one of greed where emerging countries like India realized there was a lot of money in providing IT expertise and started mass-producing so called ‘experts’ and shipping them all over the world. Very soon a resume or list of qualifications or certifications was all that was needed to convince paper-bound and rules-bound bureaucrats that an individual had the prerequisite skills to either immigrate or be awarded a work permit.

And of course, young people in countries like India and Pakistan and the Philippines moved into the IT industry not because they were motivated by the prospect of becoming IT professionals but because it was their ticket out of poverty and an entry opportunity into countries like the USA, Canada and Australia. So, we started to fill up the ranks of IT professionals with people that did not have the aptitude or motivation, just a strong desire for a better life (and who can blame them?).

Greed raided its ugly head again as local executives linked bigger bonuses to lower costs and the Indian companies further reduced ‘real’ qualifications to increase the supply of experts. Universities also got in on the act, again motivated by greed (more students equals more income) and standards were again lowered to create  a production line mentality, “Just pump more out of the system, we can sell them overseas!”

The law of averaging applies and as you gradually increase the number of the less talented and less well qualified people into the talent pool the lower the ‘average’ standard becomes. It is analogous to starting with a glass of the best Scotch Whiskey and then gradually adding more and more water. After a while it isn’t worth drinking because it isn’t whiskey any more, it is just flavoured water. We have similarly diminished our IT talent pool (especially in the ranks of programmers) to the degree where the average programmer can’t actually program.

For a long while we imported tens of thousands of these less-than-adequate programmers and they filled up the holes in mainly large enterprises like banks and finance companies and the public sector where they could hide their lack of real expertise. However, and unfortunately for them, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) has accelerated the growth of outsourcing (back to even less qualified people in places like India, Pakistan and the Philippines) and our recent immigrants are now losing their jobs to their home country-men. I find this ironic but maybe you don’t agree.

In another previous blog, the world according to Frank, I predicted a significant rise in unemployment numbers within our IT industry. I also said it has been happening for some time but that the real numbers won’t be clear until around mid-2013.

Greed will continue to drive the outsourcing phenomenon just as it will continue to drive the lowering of standards and the overall effect on our industry will be significant as the available pool of real talent becomes smaller and smaller. Similarly, local opportunities for real professionals are disappearing fast. Many of you will end up having to help justify your boss’s big bonus by approving software created overseas when it isn’t really up to scratch and many more of you will relegated to fixing the crappy code being delivered to your company from the outsourced incompetents. Not a good future for real professionals and definitely not an environment of high job satisfaction.

When I began as a programmer in the 1960s everyone I worked with was highly motivated and everyone had a high aptitude because it was such a difficult industry to enter. You had no chance of working for a mainframe vendor unless you scored at least an A+ on the infamous IBM or Burroughs or ICL or GE or CDC aptitude tests. We were a very small and very exclusive group and to my mind, a dedicated band of professionals who were in IT because we loved it and were really good at it. The average level of expertise was extraordinarily high and this is now patently no longer the case because our industry has changed dramatically since those early and halcyon days.

So what is the future for real IT professionals who are in this industry because they love it and are really good at it? Like with all things, I believe there is good news and there is bad news.

The good news is that as a true IT professional your value is higher but, probably much higher than the less-than-competent manager who is interviewing knows. This is because many incompetent programmers have now managed to become incompetent managers and this situation protects incompetent programmers but punishes highly competent ones. Basically, your manager isn’t smart enough to recognize how different you are to the average programmer in his team. This makes getting paid what you are really worth very difficult.

Ergo, if you are really good at what you do and want to be paid what you are worth and want to do challenging and satisfying work your only chance is to select a company doing challenging work and a smart manager to be interviewed by. Oh, and don’t select a company with a greedy CEO who is looking to increase his bonus by outsourcing (regardless of the result) and lowering costs to impress the board and or shareholders. Sounds like a tough ask to me, thank God I am self-employed.

Would I recommend the IT industry to any young person today in high school contemplating a future career? No I probably wouldn’t. I would probably recommend accountancy, business studies, medicine or dentistry instead. So where am I going to find the really bright, talented and motivated programmers I need in the future? This almost certainly doesn’t bear thinking about but maybe it is an opportunity as most problems are.

We need a new way to select and train IT professionals; the universities are simply not doing a good enough job. Is there anyone out there with the money, ideas and knowledge willing to set up a new kind of highly selective IT training program? If so, please contact me, I will be more than happy to be one of your first customers.

Comments (1) -

Chris Langton
Chris Langton Australia
10/22/2012 8:31:47 PM #

Being a passionate IT professional without a single year of any education in the field, I have seen many colleagues whom completed formal education or have been selected for a role based on a good resume but were actually terrible at what they are meant to be experts at.

These so-called experts are unable and seemingly unwilling to hold a technical conversation on topics they are experts of, or related topics, when it is not to do with what they have done at the company already (therefore they learnt it in their new job). Furthermore, one of these was in a management role and as a defence for his lack of aptitude to fulfil his role he actually pushed employees out of the company if they tried to engage him as though he felt threatened or challenged by his subordinates. This finally led to his dismissal after almost 2 years of flying under the radar, but not before 4 talented staff were booted by him.

BA's and Developers alike who fit into this area are clearly made apparent when you see that they do not know how to perform simple string tests, regression tests, and negative testing techniques that are a base requirement when working with a production environment.

An easy way to filter these people out from the good ones, ask them to show you a personal project, something they are proud of, and get them to demonstrate that they can perform intermediate responsibilities for the role. A great technique i would employ if i were a hiring manager, would be to get them to give you their solution to a problem and give them no boundaries so they can offer a solution in any language or whatever is relevant because whether their solution is perfect or not is not important but what you learn about their creativity and skills while they troubleshoot and apply logic can be priceless.

You may think "how can a unschooled person like you pass judgement on those who clearly are more educated"? Well I would say that education formal or not is only one part of learning,  where practice and experience make mere formal education on paper appear no more valuable than the paper it is printed on.
My judgements are based on what I have learnt building up my own servers and PC, installing and configuring every desktop and Server O/S available to my knowledge, maintaining a host server for web applications and media/file serving, programming server-side and client-side applications, hacking/modifying propriety code (games mostly).

So If anyone were come up with a new way to filter out the good from the bad, I would hope they consider passion proven with examples and demonstration. Which to me are fundamental to interviewing for an I.T. role.


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