IT's identity crisis

Don Dargel has been working in IT since he was a teenager and now, at age 37, he wants out so badly he's willing to join the National Guard to get extra money so he can go back to college. And yes, he's aware there's a war on.

Dargel works for a large outsourcing company that provides IT services to a medical research facility. The Intel systems administrator says he's lucky to have the job he does. He was laid off in 2001 and again in 2004. At one point the only work he could get in his hometown was installing point-of-sale terminals in restaurants.

"It was pretty embarrassing, installing touchscreen terminals in burger joints," Dargel says. He eventually landed a better, higher-paying job that required him to relocate, but he's still suffering from a bad case of IT identity crisis.

He looks back wistfully to the days when elite "command prompt commandos" ruled the IT universe, using skills that he says have been rendered largely obsolete by graphical interfaces and automation. "Now I'm a monkey just responding to lights," Dargel says.

His career crisis certainly isn't unique. Recent stories on the predicted shortage of IT workers touched a nerve among readers, many of whom shared their frustrations over the directions their careers have taken of late.

"There's a lot of defensiveness," says Diane Morello, vice president and research director at Gartner. "[IT workers] watch as they themselves or spouses, family and friends get replaced, systemized, automated out or moved around. They say, 'This is not the glory profession that it was when I got interested in it.'"

IT, it seems, is getting hammered from all sides. Industry analysts and pundits are making dire predictions. For example, Morello wrote a research report that said the ranks of IT will be chopped significantly in the coming years, as IT departments hire small numbers of "versatilists" to replace larger numbers of specialists.

The industry itself is maturing and changing in ways many IT execs don't like: there's outsourcing, automation, increased regulatory requirements many consider onerous and more emphasis on formalized processes, such as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL).

Plus, the image of IT is taking a beating everywhere -- from the college classroom, where the number of new computer science majors in colleges is plummeting, to the boardroom, where the influence of IT seems to be waning.

Look on the bright side

For every Don Dargel, however, there's a Chris Ferrari or a Douglas Schwinn, IT executives who are happy and motivated, and feel they're an integral part of the management team.

Ferrari, manager of platform architecture at Sanofi-Aventis, is loving life in the IT fast lane. He has been in the field about 10 years and says he wouldn't have it any other way. "I'd be lost without it," he says.

What makes Ferrari's experience so different from Dargel's? The large pharmaceutical company Ferrari works for understands the role IT can play in creating business advantage and treats its IT staff accordingly.

When IT is well represented in corporate management and top IT execs effectively communicate strategic corporate objectives to the rest of the team -- and how IT can help accomplish them -- IT staffers tend not to have identity crises. In too many cases, however, one or more of those steps don't occur, leaving IT staff largely foundering -- and unhappy.

Schwinn, CIO at toy maker Hasbro, definitely has a seat at the table. He is part of a senior management team that meets around 10 times a year to plot corporate strategy. Every other year, his IT team publishes a three-year plan outlining how IT is addressing key corporate objectives. The team also has 12-month operational plans that include budgets, and steering committees that set priorities within the overall strategy.

Schwinn doesn't see any other way for an IT department to operate. "In general, you're a service organization. As such, you need to be part of the fabric of the organization," he says.

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