IT Education Isn't the Problem, You Are

By Patrick Gray

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A perennial lament of CIOs is the lack of available IT talent. Countless surveys point to the gap between demand and availability, and there are never enough bodies with the latest and greatest skills headlining their resume. Despite these recurring pleas for talent, the number of students enrolled in IT programs continues to plummet.


What’s wrong with this picture?


While IT departments have been around for several decades, they arguably hit their stride during the “gold rush” of the late 1990s. In those heady days, anyone who could spell HTML was given a handsome salary, despite their inability to communicate with other mortals or unsavory personal habits. As the technology market crashed, executives suddenly realized that the Web was not some magical fairyland, where the mere presence of a website translated immediately into sales.


The Web was like any other media, and the folks you needed to be successful were artists, marketers and businesspeople — not computer geeks. The droves of technical graduates hitting the streets were told that their experience was passé, and many sought refuge in MBA programs or a career other than technology.


Today, that vision has not much changed. While the industry trumpets the wonders of a technical career in one press release, it is usually followed immediately by a release detailing the newest outsourcing initiative, many of which involve commodity technical jobs like developers and engineers. The industry wants well-spoken, technically adept and business-savvy employees, but wants to pay them commodity prices inspired by years of sending work to lower-wage countries.


Despite what the surveys are saying, the market is saying something completely different, and most students are smart enough to hear it and choose another career.


So, what can we do?


First, the IT industry pundits need to bury the notion of the all-star techie. That vision of the Razor-riding, long-haired dude with Birkenstocks on the desk and a six-figure salary should be dead and buried. Companies simply are not hiring these types of people any longer, and the market has responded accordingly.


Secondly, there needs to be less emphasis on technical skills within the IT community. Superficially, this seems counterintuitive. However, if you look back over the last couple of decades, those that have survived in technical roles have a common trait — an ability to learn. Like a one-hit wonder, today’s AJAX expert is tomorrow’s BASIC programmer, but an employee who can adapt to the shifts in technology and demonstrates an ability to change with the times is an invaluable asset. This requires far more diligence in hiring, breaking with the traditional IT mold of keyword searches and certification peeping, rather than careful screening and old fashioned interviewing.


Finally, if IT is serious about attracting new talent, it needs to polish its image with leading academic institutions. Toeing the party line that “there’s not enough technical talent” from one corner of your mouth, while moving thousands of jobs offshore, gives IT at large a black eye. Showing IT as an area where new skills are acquired daily, and one gains an opportunity to work with nearly every aspect of a business is far more appealing.


Spending years learning the programming toolkit du jour in the hopes of a career that spans more than six months is simply not attractive to a new graduate. IT could also tear a page from the big consulting companies’ playbook. Rather than scouring the halls of the Computer Science department, these companies look for people who can learn and interact, whether they are CS students or History majors.


I rarely make predictions about which technology will next explode onto the IT scene, but I would stake my professional reputation on the success of the IT department with the most adaptable, bright, eager and business-savvy employees who will run circles around the department that goes through a painful layoff to clear out all the “legacy” people, and then attempts to convince a cadre of technical experts that it is a great place to work.


Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.