Are You Dropping Bread Crumbs On The IT Career Path?

Technology Staff Editor
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At about this time last year, InformationWeek published an article entitled "Speak Up For The IT Career," in which many IT professionals insisted that they would not recommend a career in their own industry to their kids. "If you enjoy working very hard and long hours for less money, I guess it's OK," said one system administrator in a post to its blog on the topic. Now, just a year later, it seems that the tide has turned. Asking if traditional career paths for enterprise IT professionals are still viable "in the face of outsourcing, offshoring, and downsizing," Forrester Research interviewed 55 IT and expert executives to learn their views. In this Q&A, analysts Laurie Orlov and Sam Bright talk about the results and what CIOs can do to ensure that they cultivate business-savvy IT professionals. Q: Your report states that there was a 70% decline in interest in the computer science major between 2000 and 2005 and a 17% drop in computer science graduates in 2005. Given that most people think IT staffers should be more business-oriented, is this a good thing? Bright: It depends on how much importance you place on a computer science degree. If you place it as the sole indicator of interest in IT, that's a downer. But in some companies, there are opportunities for people with non-IT backgrounds, and some even recruit specifically for candidates from non-IT backgrounds. One person we spoke to said he wouldn't hire someone with a master's in science, because he was looking for an MBA. Orlov: It used to be that everyone wanted a computer science degree to go into IT. You could say the drop in computer science majors ] a good thing, because that degree doesn't prepare people for the new IT career. Programming has become a commodity; what's needed in the future is business knowledge. Q: But one of the advantages of a computer science degree is that you learn how to think logically. Orlov: Yes, companies absolutely want people who can think logically and design processes. But they also want people who can negotiate, write, communicate, and analyze. The ratio for future responsibilities will be 20% highly technical, 80% more business-oriented. Bright: Logical thinking without communication capabilities is not enough. IT people need to have the proper frame of reference to communicate with the business and do so in a way the business cares about. Q: Presumably, then, students need to be multidisciplinary? How do you communicate that to them? Bright: It's not so much that the students need to be multidisciplinary; it's that IT degrees need to be more multidisciplinary. The IT degree has to have a business component hardwired in prior to graduation. Yes, there's value in multiple degrees, but the IT degree, whether it's a computer science degree or a masters in science degree, needs to be about more than IT. Orlov: We talked to one IT exec who said that an undergraduate computer science major was table stakes to get an interview. Then the interview process needed to reflect the individual's interpersonal, analytical, and communication capabilities. I can't overemphasize that interpersonal aspect, because that can't be outsourced. Bright: We also need to expand the business degree to incorporate more of the IT component. To get a degree in business today, you need to take classes in finance and human resources. Those classes should include IT. Q: I was at Cornell for a short time in the 1980s, studying to get an MBA. MIS, as it was called at the time, was part of the core curriculum, along with finance, statistics, and economics. We had to learn programming. Orlov: Is Cornell still doing that? Some MBA programs have lost the IT concentration area they had during the boom. We haven't done an MBA curriculum comparison. Cornell may have been ahead of its time. [Note: Cornell no longer requires IT as a core requirement but has started offering one-year MBAs for executives in technical or scientific fields.] Q: When I was a manager and hiring staff, I was always leery of people whose rsums zigzagged between different areas, because it was a sign of their not knowing what they wanted. It sounds like that might be a good thing now. Orlov: It would be fabulous. It's the future. Someone might zig from one company into consulting and zag into a higher level in IT. We talked to one company in which nurses were getting out of nursing and becoming implementation analysts for medical devices. Who would have thought one of the destinations after nursing would be IT? Q: Let's go back to the question about lower interest in IT careers. What should IT executives do to "reinvigorate" the IT career? Bright: First of all, they need to engage their local colleges and universities from a strategic level. They need to serve on advisory committees and take an active role in shaping the curriculum that will teach future job candidates. They should go in and lecture about their real-world experiences and how the theory the students are learning would apply to the real world. Another thing would be for CIOs to actually start developing paid internship programs so they can start to develop a talent pipeline. There's a disconnect between CIOs who are optimistic about IT as a career but who don't hire at the entry level themselves. They need to support the concept. Q: Are you talking undergraduate or graduate? Bright: Both. You could even have some high school internships, giving the interns a help-desk or some other entry-level role that can develop into a role with greater responsibility. Internship is a proving ground for students and being an intern is a way for them to gain familiarity with the business. If you pique their interest while they're young, they're more likely to stay engaged. Q: What else should CIOs do? Orlov: They should think about starting rotation programs in their own companies. When we asked CIOs if they hired IT people from the business side and they said yes, we asked if they were interested in the individual specifically or if they had a program? For the most part, it was ad hoc. We think they should create a formal program where they seed people from IT into the business and vice versa. That would also result in business staffs that are more IT-aware. CIOs should speak up for IT careers. Not enough of them are doing it. Bright: Without further action from CIOs or other IT stakeholders, people will wake up five years from now wondering where the IT people have gone. Without an effort to build the pipeline now, there won't be one later. Feedback question: Tell us how you're seeding your IT pipeline. Q&A conducted by contributing Web editor Howard Baldwin.


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