Critical Path

Workers worry the IT career path has become less promising. That's bad news for the industry. Second in a three-part series.
Kevin Sparks, VP and CIO of Coventry Health Care of Kansas, doesn't see any sign of a talent shortage, given the hordes of resumés he has on hand. Still, he does have concerns: retaining his top people and keeping them motivated and rewarded now that the double-digit raises of 1999 and 2000 are gone. He requires his managers to identify the top 10% of staff and reward them with performance-based pay. "You still have 'A' players," Sparks says. "We have to identify and retain the key talent." In addition to pay, Sparks has created flexible schedules for some people, such as four-day weeks and home-office setups for two database administrators whom he needs to keep on call. "It offers quite a bit of flexibility for them, and pretty good job satisfaction," he says. "The IT career path is still a good one."

Student interest in IT, however, has cooled since the excitement of the late 1990s. Carnegie Mellon University has seen applications for computer science drop a total of 36% since the 2001-2002 school year, to 2,067 for the 2003-2004 year. (It accepts a mere 350 students to its prestigious program.) The number of newly declared undergrads in computer science or computer engineering jumped from 10,000 in 1995 to nearly 24,000 in 2000, according to the the Computing Research Association, an organization of computer-science and computer-engineering departments. That was down to 23,033 for 2002, according to the association's most recent survey of 225 colleges, released last month.

"The glitz is off the industry, in terms of being the route to wealth the Internet bubble seemed to promise," says Eric Roberts, a professor of computer sciences at Stanford University, where the number of undergraduate computer-science majors is down about 30% in two years. Yet even if IT's moment of stardom has passed, we're far from the end of the demand for skilled computer scientists. Roberts notes that Silicon Valley technology execs still complain that the university doesn't produce enough computer-science graduates. "We're having a downturn, so it's harder for everybody," he says. "I can't imagine it's better for graduates with degrees in English, if the issue is employability."

Davilynn Ward, systems support to a string of libraries in Maryland. Photo by D.A. Peterson.

Ward moved into IT after 12 years as an accountant. Now she's getting a master's degree to prepare for an uncertain future.
Perhaps. But after several years when IT grads seemed to have the easy road to employment, InformationWeek's Salary Survey suggests experience is again a big plus in today's market. It's a reality not going unnoticed by Davilynn Ward, who's been working in IT for just a few years and now provides systems support to a string of libraries in Maryland. After 12 years as an accountant, Ward started studying for a bachelor's degree in computer science at a time when salaries and opportunities in the field were on the upswing. Current trends, however, have Ward worried about the future. So she's working on a master's degree in computer science from an online university, and she hopes that, combined with her accounting experience, will increase her chances of upward mobility. "I love my job, and I think changing from accounting to IT is one of the best things I've ever done," she says.

Still, she expects the IT profession won't be as lucrative as in the past--and she believes IT people share some of the blame for the current problems. "For a while there, anyone in IT could write their own ticket," says Ward, who dreams of being a CIO someday. "Quite a few people took advantage of that, and quite a few companies got soured on it."

Beyond the economic cycle, technology itself could change the nature of the job, and possibly the number of people needed to keep an IT department running. If the dream of Web services is realized, companies will be able to change business processes with much less integration work (see story, Tech-Driving: How Web Services Could Change IT jobs). Better tools for managing data centers and autonomic computing may create IT jobs that Vern Brownell, former chief technology officer of Goldman Sachs and founder of the server maker Egenera Inc., calls less "screwdriver intensive." IT people will spend more time designing architecture and less running cable and building shelves, he predicts. And CIOs and CTOs will spend less time battling system crashes and infrastructure problems. But the shift isn't imminent: Brownell doesn't see that changing dramatically over the next several years, because there's still so much cranky legacy technology to manage.

For business-technology executives, the most pressing issue that the worry among IT workers creates is keeping employees motivated about their careers. CIOs are doing the usual: offering training, encouraging employees to keep their skills up to date, even holding the occasional staff retreat. What they can't afford to do, however, is ease up on the pressure. As IT matures as a business discipline, executives are being asked to run better, more efficient IT operations (see "Squeezed," April 14, 2003). CIOs are increasingly asking IT pros to be driven by business goals more than technology. "What separates good companies from great companies is execution," says David Bergen, CIO of Levis Strauss & Co. "I think the message motivates people."

Bergen certainly didn't lighten the mood when he joined the company more than two years ago. "I inherited an organization that wasn't as effective as it needed to be," he says. "So we brought in new leaders, new people to help energize the organization, and new talent to be better than we were." Levi Strauss has undergone massive changes to its distribution channel in an effort to improve competitiveness, so Bergen hired people with skills in enterprise resource planning, Web services, portals, and logistics. He judges success by how well their goals are aligned with business needs.

PeopleSoft Inc. CIO David Thompson can relate to that. A little more than a year ago, Thompson decided to move the company's internal database platform to a different vendor. A few junior database administrators, comfortable with the company's current platform, complained and dragged their feet throughout the process. "It showed their immaturity," Thompson says, "yet they demanded a lot of money and were very arrogant." So Thompson replaced them with seasoned, more mature database administrators who had "been around the block and know there's ups and downs in the economy and the need to keep skills fresh."

The appreciation for people willing to work hard and keep their skills updated might ease some of the worries of seasoned pros such as Connor, Cinotto, and Halpert, and enthusiastic IT newcomers such as Ward. If the economy picks up, the IT job market will likely return to a place between today's glum outlook and yesterday's dot-com euphoria. But that won't erase people's fears. The IT workplace has permanently changed, and even a rising tide could leave some behind. --with John Soat

Photograph by Pete McArthur
Photo of Ward by D. A. Peterson

This is the second part of a three-part series about the I.T. workplace. You can read the other two parts of the series here:
  • Squeezed
    IT departments must adopt the process-optimization practices and productivity increases they've enabled in other parts of the business. First in a three-part series
  • Sliver Of The Pie
    IT salaries are about the same as last year, and job satisfaction is down from two years ago. But the right mix of business-technology skills can still pay off. Third in a three-part series.