Darker days ahead

Darker days ahead

The good life of IT is about to change - dramatically - with tough times ahead predicted for those who can't evolve into a new breed of business technologistAll in all, it's going to be a tough world for information technology people, according to a panel of futurists and IT managers who think about the hereafterThe new IT workplace will be shaped not so much by changes in technology as by changing demographics. A tidal wave of very young workers will sweep away traditional notions of education, job satisfaction, compensation and loyalty.

"The key population will be the Millennial Generation - people born after 1982," says Atul Dighe, senior futurist at the Institute for Alternative Futures in Virginia. Those people "who are high school seniors now - will be technically savvy and team-oriented," Dighe says.

The IT worker shortage will shrink as the Millennial Generation workers hit the labour force, Dighe predicts. They will be a competitive threat to entrenched IT workers by virtue of their numbers alone. There are more of these children of baby boomers than there are baby boomers themselves.

Meanwhile, Dighe says, a substantial number of ageing baby boomers looking for second or third careers will also join the IT labour force.

The 1980s saw the emergence of the college dropout as an important contributor to the IT workforce, Dighe notes, and during the 1990s, high school dropouts began taking IT jobs. "I wonder if the next killer app will come from a primary school dropout," he says with a laugh.

Indeed, universities offering expensive, lengthy degree programs are "atrophying as we speak", says corporate futurist Thornton May, chief awareness officer at Guardent, an information security firm "What am I going to learn at MIT that I'm not going to learn at Akamai [Technologies]?"

"Octogenarians will be on project teams with teens," May predicts, a phenomenon he calls "Gerber meets Viagra". The groups will require different management styles. "The 18-year-old wants to be in the network, learning and contributing. The 60-year-old wants to be recognised for the contributions and play more of an advisory and mentor role," he says.

IT professionals will become "contingent workers" who will be brought in to work on a project or to deliver a specific product, Dighe says. Employees will enjoy unprecedented freedom to pursue their own interests, and employers will benefit because it will be easier to vary the size and composition of the workforce, he says.

Any losers? "If you are not very good, there aren't many places to hide," Dighe says.

Minority groups lagging in IT education and training will fall still further behind, says Joe Coates, president of Coates & Jarratt in Washington. Companies will need to tap into this potentially rich but poorly trained talent pool, and the way to do that will be to establish cross-cultural training programs, he says.

Non-IT skills will distinguish the most sought-after IT people, says Arnold Brown, chairman of Weiner, Edrich, Brown in New York. "Employers will start with the premise that everyone knows the computer," he says. "What you have to know to make you stand out from the crowd is people skills - how to motivate people, resolve disputes, communicate."

As companies move into the future, they should look to their past, says Charlie Feld, CEO of The Feld Group. "The new Fortune 500 will be companies that rebuild their cultures," says Feld, formerly CIO at Delta Air Lines and Frito-Lay.

"When I started with IBM [in 1966], I had a very strong indoctrination into the values of IBM - what the customer meant, how we'd treat each other, a sense that my work meant something," Feld says. "By the time I left, 400,000 people later, it was like, ‘Who cares?'"Feld says the IT shops in many large companies are stultifying places populated by demoralised people. They are companies that have lost the pride and spirit they had when they began.

"When I go into a troubled IT shop, I assume everyone there is good but has been poorly led," Feld says. "There's no shortage of IT workers, there's a shortage of IT leadership."

And the shortage of inspired - and inspiring - leadership leads to a sort of malaise, Feld says. "IT folks tend to be pessimistic. But if they are going to change the world in this New Economy, they are going to have go back to a spirit of manifest destiny. That's what the start-ups have - optimism almost to a fault," he says.

Human resources departments will fade away, May predicts, because they tend to be overly rigid in rapidly changing environments. "Their rules not only take a long time to comply with, they are actually toxic," he says. Smart IT managers will be their own human resources managers, he says.

Successful IT shops will "celebrate" the contributions of their employees, May says. The common failure to do that is one of the drivers of the open-source movement, where developers get tremendous satisfaction from the applause of colleagues and users. "It's a huge meritocracy, and the reason people play is to score points," he says.

Compensation will be defined more broadly to include non-financial items, such as the opportunity to work on exciting projects with like-minded teammates, Dighe says. Strictly financial rewards will increasingly go to those people willing to do less attractive work, and maybe that's what the retrained baby boomers will do, Dighe speculates.

A surplus of labour

There is a "dark cloud" hanging over this shift from paying people for time and place to paying them by task, Coates says. "We have no good data on the price elasticity of demand for white-collar workers. What if there is a 4 per cent labour surplus in your community, and people start bidding down for the job? A small labour surplus could send the whole wage structure plummeting."

And there will be a surplus of IT workers in the US within five years, Coates says.

"Software [development] is being exported so fast from the US that this shortage can't be anything other than ephemeral," Coates says. Those who argue that less-developed countries will never be able to match the software skills found in the US - are just whistling Dixie", he says.

"Software is actually a labour-intensive, not a technology-intensive, enterprise," Coates says. "You have all these educated but underemployed people in India and Central Europe. Each time they undertake a software job they are building sophistication for the next, more elaborate job. So nothing is going to elude them. In America, there will be a lot of disappointed people when the job they were getting $US50,000 for can be done in India for $28,000."

Indeed, May predicts, large US companies will recruit much more aggressively overseas and will establish IT schools in less-developed counties.

"The objective will be to extract from these ‘colonies' not mineral resources but cerebral raw materials," May says.

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