The offshore-outsourcing debate often centers on how to save all IT jobs in the United States. But what about safeguarding your own career? The safest career move is to assume offshore outsourcing is a global megatrend that the politicians can at best slow, not stop. So how do you make yourself indispensable?
There are a lot of pat answers: Innovate. Move up the value chain. Learn constantly. Retool your skills.
But they're not much of a guide for IT pros making everyday, on-the-job career decisions. Innovate how? Move up to do what? Learn what skills? Maybe that's why fewer than one in six IT staffers thinks business technology offers the career path and salary potential it did five years ago, and just one in five managers thinks so, according to InformationWeek Research's National IT Salary Survey of more than 10,000 IT professionals. Only 13% believe outsourcing will lead to working on more-innovative projects as menial tasks go elsewhere.
Amid this skepticism, interviews with CIOs, technology-company executives, and computer-science educators reveal the IT industry's leaders don't have crystal-clear answers, either. But characteristics of the most-likely-to-thrive business-technology worker do emerge:
- You'll stay at your company, or at least in your industry, longer.
- You'll go back to school. Maybe not the whole ivy-covered walls bit, but some sort of rigorous, formal training.
- You'll know your company's customers well.
- You'll specialize more--perhaps in a technology, but more likely in one industry's use of technology.
- You'll have a greater understanding of how business technology works and especially how pieces of it work together.
- Your co-workers outside IT will know who you are and seek out your judgment.
- If you're a college student, you'll make relatively less coming out of school than the salaries in 2000 that made you decide to study computer science.
- Your competition for IT work will come from people around the world. So will your co-workers.
The picture is fuzzy, to be sure. But industry leaders have suggestions for concrete steps you can take to prepare for a changing IT career and signs to look for about whether your job is at risk of being outsourced and particularly of being sent offshore.
The common refrain from IT leaders is to know your business and industry. General Motors Corp. CIO Ralph Szygenda's advice is to "move to the middle"--have great skills in technology on the one end, then build an understanding of business functions and, ideally, one industry, and find a place in the middle that spans both arenas. "People in the middle for the next 20 years will do very well," he says.
What offshore outsourcers can't do as effectively as on-site employees is innovate. Outsiders can't understand the needs of customers and the skills and shortcomings of the companies serving them and figure out technology-enabled means of changing those companies to please customers, the way insiders can.
That's why many executives, like Szygenda, preach the importance of understanding business and think IT people will have to do less job-hopping than in the past. It takes time to learn how a company or an industry works. It's why the freelance programmers and startup job-hoppers who were such a part of the dot-com boom suffered most severely in the downturn--and may not last in IT at all. "We have a lot of people out there not attached to a business at the same time business is asking, what value does IT bring?" says Len Tenner, CIO emeritus of Hewitt Associates, an HR outsourcing and consulting company. "It's people with close ties to the business" who will prosper, Tenner says.
Steven Buege puts it another way: "If you're in a 'do what you're told' IT organization, you're exposed," says the senior VP of operations for Thomson West, a unit of Thomson Legal & Regulatory, which is a $3 billion-a-year subsidiary of Thomson Corp. that includes the legal publisher WestLaw. "If you're a 'do what you're told' employee,' you're exposed."
Buege, the former chief technology officer of Thomson Legal & Regulatory, offers a concrete example of IT innovation. Lawyers use WestLaw to search for legal decisions to use in their arguments, but it's not the low-cost option, and they expect to save time and get better results for the premium price. WestLaw has added functions to its service called KeyCite, so that a lawyer considering citing a case to support an argument will see a red or yellow flag next to it if there's a later case that weakens its argument. That came about because IT people knew the technical feasibility of making those kinds of connections and that WestLaw customers would pay for them. "Then you can say 'What if we built X?' and know X has a lot of value," Buege says. "You're not going to outsource that spark, that innovation." WestLaw employs about 1,400 business technologists and increased its U.S. staff by about 4% last year.