One of the potential frustrations of working in a corporate IT department is the constant reminder that "IT is not our business; IT is here to serve the business." There's an alternative, of course: You can get a job in IT services, where information technology is the business.
Work in IT services is closely related to IT consulting (a field we covered previously), with a few key differences. Although some companies offer both IT consulting and IT services, and both types of businesses are looking to hire highly skilled IT professionals, there's a distinct difference between the two, sources say. That difference is essentially the difference between strategy and tactics: An IT consulting firm plans new systems, while an IT services provider maintains systems after they're deployed.
Like consulting, IT services demands that employees be flexible and able to quickly understand not only a client's systems but its entire industry as well. Unlike consulting, the demands for travel may be less in services, though the length of time you spend on a project may be longer (depending on whether you're on the development or maintenance end of the timeline).
"A consulting company will design the structure and the governance, while the execution and maintenance goes to the services firm," says Kanak Rajan, a partner in the talent practice of human resources consulting firm Mercer.
Both fields offer promising job prospects, with "an incredible future," says Mahnaz Javid, senior vice president for talent acquisition and integration at Seattle-based Avanade, a provider of both IT consulting and IT services. "They are two sides of the same coin," she says. "One requires the other."
The good news? Employment potential is red hot in IT services. According to a May 2016 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, high-tech services jobs account for an ever-increasing slice of the total high-tech employment pie. In 1994, IT services jobs represented 38.8% of high-tech jobs. That figure had grown to 52.6% in 2014, after increasing every year since 2010, according to the BLS. Even a 2013 BLS report, which used projections from 2011, showed growth through 2020.
And compensation looks good as well. According to Computerworld's 2016 IT Salary Survey, compensation in the computer services/consulting field averaged $106,100 for software engineers, $121,000 for project managers and $145,700 for VP-level titles.
Figures like those probably make IT services sound appealing. But as is the case in any field, IT services has its upsides and downsides, and there are probably some aspects of the work that aren't readily apparent to outsiders. Here's a look at the pros and cons of IT services, along with a rundown of the hard and soft skills employers are looking for.
The primary advantage to a job in IT services, recruiters say, is the breadth and depth of experience that people are exposed to on the job.
"You get a whole new vision of where the world is going that you can't get elsewhere," says Donata Davenport, vice president of global talent acquisition at Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys, which has a large services operation. "You're solving problems for companies doing business in multiple regions, with a variety of maturity models. You're pulling together diverse teams, stretching yourself professionally and personally. It's intellectually challenging and rewarding."
To be sure, the phrase "a variety of maturity models" covers a lot of ground. If you're an IT professional with deep expertise in a technology that's on the down slope of the adoption curve -- mainframes, for example -- IT services can be a way to extend your career.
But it's just as likely that you'll be in demand if you have cutting-edge skills in areas such as mobile, DevOps or software as a service: Companies often find that they can get expertise in new specialties more quickly by contracting with a services provider than they could if they tried to hire people themselves.
As in IT consulting, employees of IT services firms need client-facing skills, the ability to move easily between projects and a willingness to travel. The advantage is the flexibility: Depending on your preference, you may be able to choose to work on a lot of different projects, or just oversee a mature system that needs day-to-day care. The opportunities run the gamut.
IT services jobs are typically less frenzied than consulting gigs. A consultancy's development project may have to be done in three to six months, whereas a maintenance project in services can last a couple of years.
"Consulting firms lend themselves to being pulled in different directions" because of their focus on cutting-edge work with demanding schedules, says Michael Wise, former vice president of talent acquisition for Xerox and currently a talent advocate at Intel. In contrast, services firms "work on road maps, so the work is more stable," he says.
Services employees stay with projects until they're delivered, and may continue on for maintenance responsibilities after the system goes live. "It doesn't do any good to pull people on and off [of projects] because that creates instability," Wise explains.
Variety is often cited as a benefit of working in IT services, but if you prefer to specialize and work in depth in a particular area, that's also an option, says Rajesh Ahuja, global head of recruitment for Infosys, a multinational systems integration, application development and product engineering firm headquartered in Bangalore, India.
"Depending on the business requirements and your level of interest, you can choose to become a deep expert in a specific technology or business domain," Ahuja says. "You could become an e-commerce expert or go really deep into every nut and bolt of a specific application."
Xerox, for instance, has more than 2,000 business units focused on specific industries or subsegments of industries. According to Wise, Xerox employees can, for example, specialize in the transportation industry as a whole or drill down into narrow aspects of transportation, becoming an expert in, say, toll-tag information collection. Options such as those can be multiplied across many industries and subspecialties.
Not yet an expert in an esoteric discipline? Not a problem. There are myriad opportunities to learn in IT services, because you're surrounded by other experts. "Within Avanade, we have hundreds of communities of like-minded people who share learning, exchange ideas and build their collective knowledge," says Javid. Building such communities is crucial both for employees, who can turn to them for career development purposes, and for the companies themselves, which can rely on knowledgeable employees to help train others.
However, there are some downsides to working in IT services, practitioners caution. One of the biggest is that you may not always get to stay in a particular geographic area as long as you wish because you're at the mercy of client demands.
"We are driven by client requirements," says Infosys's Ahuja, "so it's not always easy to choose what you want to do. We have to match individual needs to client needs, and the timing may not always work out."
Similarly, clients often determine what office you work in. For example, in the government sector or in financial services, Ahuja says, clients may want services personnel on site. So you may find yourself moving back and forth between a client's facilities and the service firm's offices. On the other hand, he says, Infosys sometimes finds it easier to set up development centers in its own offices "so we can coordinate and collaborate better." The bottom line? "Being flexible is important," he says.
Flexibility also applies to when you work, not just where you work, especially if you're employed by a global IT services firm or working for international clients. "You can't assume everybody is going to be available during your 9-to-5 [U.S.] work slot," says Unisys's Davenport. "You may have to be up early for calls to Europe and India and up late for calls to Australia."
Yet another way in which services providers expect IT staffers to be flexible is in their ability to quickly adapt their technical expertise to the unique challenges of clients in a variety of industries.
For instance, you may know cloud services, but you may also need to know that cloud-based financial applications will require strong security. And while you may know mobile devices, you may also need to understand how they're used by both employees and shoppers in retail businesses.
"If you're coming out of an IT role, you may not have had a lot of exposure to business processes. There could be a high learning curve," says Intel's Wise. That's especially true these days, he notes, because advanced technologies are being put to use at almost every type of company and in all kinds of business processes.
Another downside for techies coming out of traditional corporate IT: You may have to work within strict parameters in IT services.
"A services firm, in order to be profitable, needs to create deliverable solutions within a specific requirements," says Davenport. "There's not a lot of time for 'what if?' scenarios and discussions of multiple, elaborate alternatives."
In IT services, it's important to remember that you're there to meet the client's current targeted need. "Bright minds love to innovate, but they have to do it within the context of what the client needs," Davenport says. For example, you might think that a hybrid cloud is the best long-term option for meeting your client's needs, but a private cloud may have to suffice because it fulfills the agreed-upon scope of the project.
Wanted: Code warriors
Executives of IT services firms agree with Marc Andreesen's 2011 pronouncement that "software is eating the world."
"Software skills and the ability to learn software development are very important to us," says Davenport, noting that demand has heavily shifted to programming over the past couple of years. "We used to look for people with [electrical engineering] degrees, but even then, we wanted them to understand system-level programming. The days of our looking for hardware engineers coming out of college are behind us, because that market has become commoditized."
She acknowledges that IT services providers are looking for infrastructure skills, but of course, a lot of infrastructure is going the software-defined route, whether in networks, storage or data centers. Infosys's Ahuja agrees that there's a need for infrastructure skills, along with the ability to gather business requirements and turn them into technical specifications.
Interestingly, there's sometimes a need for people with a little "snow on the roof" (a.k.a. gray hair) to deal with legacy systems, according to John Reed, senior executive director for IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology.
"Most companies still have staffers who are familiar with those old systems," Reed says. "But if they lose the legacy experts, they might bring in a services firm to replace Johnny the Cobol guy."
Along with programming expertise, IT services providers also need out-of-the-box thinkers with problem-solving skills. "Not all process improvement is technology improvement," says Wise. "There's quite a bit of creativity that goes into looking at a process and redesigning it." If you've ever done business-process re-engineering, or anything where you converted a manual process to a highly automated process, be sure to highlight that on your résumé.
Reed concurs. "You need the ability to understand what's happening, ask the right questions, document your findings, and provide recommendations back to the business," he says.
Not surprisingly, teamwork and collaboration are also sought-after skills. "Success comes from a combination of skills, from people with diverse backgrounds," says Javid.
"Sometimes the best solutions come from a user experience specialist, or someone with experience in how information is consumed. It's important to "listen and hear" the input of both clients and colleagues -- and to be able to do so across global, multicultural teams under deadline.
The ability to collaborate is important in most jobs, but sources stress that in IT services, there are deeper intangibles that must be plumbed. "It helps to have experience working in ambiguous situations, where you have helped identify a problem and worked on the solution," Ahuja says.
And Davenport emphasizes the importance not so much of leadership, but of the ability to influence.
"It's an increasingly flat world," she says. "Informal leadership -- the ability to influence and be a trusted adviser -- is really important to us. Our staff needs to paint a picture of the future for clients. That's not always easy because it requires changing the status quo."
More than anything else, however, IT services executives say they're looking for people who exhibit adaptability and a willingness to educate themselves. Learning C++ and nothing more is a career-stopper, says Davenport, who adds that IT services professionals should "approach their learning as they would approach agile software design" -- that is, by constantly adding new skills. IT services providers offer staff training programs, but training "doesn't have to be through formal channels," says Davenport. "You can learn a lot from YouTube."
At Avanade, "we want people who know how to write code, but we also are looking for self-learners, people who are passionate about technology, who -- if they don't know something -- they go learn it." Javid says. A thirst for learning, a sense of self-aspiration, is important, she says, adding that adaptability defines success in the IT services industry.
The bottom, says Javid, is this: "If you can move from one location to another, one project to another, and have the ability to learn and adapt and still be relevant to the next client, that's what will differentiate you from others."
Editor's note: After 40 years in journalism -- 30 of them covering technology -- longtime Computerworld contributor Howard Baldwin is laying down his reporter's notebook. We thank him for his impressive body of work and wish him well on the next stage of his journey.