How Secure is Your IT Technical Career?

Thursday Mar 1st 2007 by Rob England
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Strategies for coping with the constantly shifting sands of the tech industry, including how to avoid a layoff.

If you are a senior (read over 30) IT technical person, well versed, even expert, in your chosen products and technologies, how secure is your career?

As you get older, you get slower, uglier and more expensive. As your work rate goes down and your cost goes up, you must compensate by expanding your skills and adding more value to the organization. Growing more experienced at the same thing isn’t enough. After a certain level of experience with technology, more doesn’t count for much: enough is enough.

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Experience counts for less in the 21st century. The new technologies are not as arcane and inaccessible – it is not a closed priesthood now. In the past, our industry has leaned heavily on experience and lightly on qualifications. Once, if someone had a few years on their CV, they could always get a job and ask a lot for it. Now the industry is getting more professional, and certifications and academic backgrounds are beginning to count for more.

It isn’t enough to know one technology well any more, or at least it won’t be for much longer. Look behind you. There are kids coming up with an MCSE or BS in object programming or whatever, versed in LDAP, Java and Oracle. And those kids are cheaper, keener and smarter than you. Ask yourself frankly: How long would it take a technical school graduate – with the right skills and a few years experience in the industry – to learn enough about your technologies to be able to do a credible job?

They would get paid a lot less than you to do it, I’ll bet. Product technologists are falling down the pecking order (just like programmers and telephonists and typists and steam engineers and every other technology specialist in history). As technologies become commodities, so too do those who work with them.

People who had been with the products for a decade staffed a product support center I knew in the US. They were highly experienced, knew every nuance of the software, and had had pay rises every year for that decade. Then the company brought in the “farm boys” (and girls): graduates of rural colleges who couldn’t believe their luck in getting a job with a big software company, even if it was at low pay “to begin with.” They were smart, and eager to prove their worth. They soon figured out the software well enough to support it. They didn’t do as good a job as the old guard, but they were a third the price and they were good enough. And within a few years they were just as good, and all the old guard were gone. This is not a fable.

What is more, the industry is changing. We don’t choose technology any more – we create solutions. We aren’t tinkering with products: we are engineers implementing systems.

In the past we bought the product and figured out how to make it fulfill the requirement. Now users want to lay out the business requirement and hear how we are going to deliver against it. Features functions and benefits are secondary. They will deal with that at some point. The important question is the deliverable. That deliverable isn’t measured in bandwidth or transactions or use cases. It is measured in ROI and timelines and EVA, in personal CSFs and industry directions.

If you didn’t get my message already, here it is spelled out: if you depend on product and technology expertise alone, you will compare less and less favorably against eager cheap young pups wanting a crack at your job on their way up.

What to Do About It

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A cameraman and his assistant were filming lions on the veldt. The alpha male got annoyed and started taking a noticeable interest in them. The cameraman filmed on, then noticed that his assistant had pulled off his heavy boots and was lacing on sneakers. “No point,” said the cameraman, “if he decides to go for us you will never outrun him.” “I don’t need to outrun him” replied the assistant, “I only need to outrun you.”

The moral of the story is don’t film lions. No wait… the moral of the story is to keep an eye on those around you. It may sound brutal but when the 5% layoff tranche comes through, your colleagues are your competitors. Just make sure you are doing more to add value back to the business (and to be seen to add value back to the business) than most of them are. Or at least make sure you are not running at the back of the pack. If you are the highest paid with the narrowest set of skills (don’t measure range of technical knowledge – that counts as one skill), then you are walking.

That point about being seen to contribute is important. Technical people are often modest, and take a dim view of those who blow their own trumpet. But ask yourself what the odds are of your manager doing the investigation necessary to get a good picture of who really wrote the document, or who was here over the weekend. Tell them.

And (to jumble analogies) make sure you have a parachute. Where will you work next? Doing what? Make sure your CV looks attractive and your skills are adequate now, before the crunch comes. Being laid off is a traumatic experience: you will cope many times better if you already have a plan and are at least part of the way along the path to being prepared. Better to spend severance money on a brief job search and a nice holiday, rather than crammed training and endless door knocking.

In a future article we will look at some of your options for moving ahead and up before the lions get you.

)See Strategies For Securing Your IT Career.)

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