Is a Career In IT Risky?

Monday Oct 15th 2007 by Eric Spiegel
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Sure, the competition from H1B workers is real, but there are serious upsides to a tech career that didn’t exist a few years ago. Plus: strategies for making yourself more marketable.

“H1B’s are everywhere!” This was the frustrated exclamation from a headhunter buddy of mine sitting across the table at lunch. He prefers to be called a “recruitment specialist,” but he absolutely does recruit “heads” for local IT companies. And these days the techie heads he finds are usually those with H1B visas.

Even though the U.S. government has capped these visas for foreign nationals who have a specialty in technology, the available pool of IT resources is dominated by them.

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Let me first be clear in stating that smart, decent, hard working people are valuable to any business, whether they come from your home country or from a foreign country. I’m going to avoid the political discussion on this topic. Instead, let’s focus on what impact this and other recent events have had in labeling a career in IT as risky.

I actually believe that a career in IT is more promising now that ever before, despite more competition from emerging markets. When I started in IT, frankly, it wasn’t all that exciting and not very diverse with opportunities. Up into the early 90’s, most IT jobs were focused on the world of IBM mainframes, centered around programming skills like COBOL, CICS and JCL.

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Today, a new college computer science or information systems graduate can find opportunities in any industry, with diverse programming options like Java, C#, Ruby and operating systems like Linux, Windows, or Unix. If they don’t want to write code, they can work in operations with exciting new technologies in application delivery like streaming and virtualization. And there are so many more opportunities in areas such as security, networking and storage.

I’m just touching the surface of the vast IT ocean. My point is that risk is reduced because of all the choices. Some might argue that there was less risk back before Web technology blossomed because you didn’t have to worry about your COBOL skills not being valuable – almost every company needed it.

But as the massive layoffs proved in the early 90’s, this narrow focus actually limited the opportunities available when there was a market contraction. It wasn’t so easy to learn a new skill to make yourself valuable in another industry, because there weren’t many other IT skills to learn.

The recent explosion in open source has made it even easier for smaller companies to quickly compete with established firms. If the big firms lay off people, displaced staffers can latch on to one of the many early stage software firms popping up.

Now what about those H1Bs and the somewhat more hyped offshoring of IT jobs? I remember a conversation a few years back with a parent whose child had just selected a degree in computer science. She was concerned it was a risky career choice. I’m still amazed at this new and still prevailing sentiment.

I would tell any parent to encourage their child to pursue IT as a career. They might not strike it rich with an IPO, but there should be plenty of jobs, especially if there is flexibility in geographical location. Larger population areas still hold the most diverse technology markets. You’ll have less risk living in Silicon Valley than in a small town in the Midwest.

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From my first-hand experience, IT departments and software firms are desperate for home-grown IT talent. It may not be fair, but my headhunting friend has specifically been told that H1B’s are not desired by hiring managers. The usual reason given is the obvious paperwork costs to sponsor a visa. However, the truth is that many managers have experienced difficulties working with H1B’s, and especially with offshoring.

There are cultural, communication and time zone differences that can make a managers job much more difficult. These managers would honestly prefer in the case of H1B’s to instead have someone with fluent communication skills. In the case of offshoring, being in the same time zone and having the ability to have face to face communication trumps the promised cost savings.

Certainly, there are good cases for H1B’s and offshoring, but it depends on factors like the type of project and the skill set of management. And the purpose of H1B’s is to fill gaps in local markets, which wouldn’t be there if more people enrolled in computer-related degrees. I expect the qualifying cases to become less frequent, thus increasing opportunities for local talent – assuming there is local talent available.

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And even if the offshoring trend reemerges with common programming jobs going overseas, these emerging markets will only shift opportunities. To further reduce your risk and take advantage of coming needs, I’d recommend complimenting your programming skills.

Here are eight ways to expand your horizons and reduce your IT career risk.

1.) Learn a specific business skill, like accounting, supply chain, marketing or human resources.
2.) Become an expert in a compliance standard like HIPAA or Sarbanes-Oxley.
3.) Get a graduate degree to expand your horizon, such as a law degree focusing on intellectual property.
4.) Focus on becoming an IT architect, so that you are designing scalable, secure enterprise- class application delivery architectures.
5.) Become an expert in an industry like finance, oil or health care.
6.) Improve your writing skills. Good technical writers are always hard to come by.
7.) Jump into management. There won’t likely be a shortage of people needed to manage local or offshore resources.
8.) Dive deep into a specialization like security or networking and become an expert on topics like encryptions, intrusion protection and authentication.

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There likely will be pure software developer opportunities for many decades to come, however, it’s just good risk management to expand your horizons and make yourself more valuable.

In short, don’t be afraid to embrace IT as your career or recommend it to someone else. There will be plenty of room for techies all over the globe to prosper over the next 50 years. Maybe there will be some massive shift in technology in the far future, but for now, I truly believe you cannot lose with a career in IT. Bet on it!

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