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Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Speak Up For The IT Career

It's time for U.S. businesses to stop taking the tech talent pipeline for granted.

The future of information technology in the United States will be determined not just in its computer labs but at its kitchen tables. On long car rides. At block parties, and church picnics, or anywhere else that gets grown-ups and teenagers together to talk. It's those powerful snippets of conversation that just might tip a kid toward or away from studying a technology or science field.

Conversations like Melody Huang is having with her 19-year-old daughter. Huang's IT education has led her on a 20-year global business career, as developer, consultant, business owner, and now a lead IT architect with Vanguard Group, the mutual-fund company. Encouraged by Huang's example, her daughter, Katherine, a college sophomore with an undeclared major, took advanced-placement computer courses in high school. But these days, she's uncertain when her mother pitches IT as a great career. "She's hearing that the jobs aren't really out there, and you're going to be pressed down the corporate ladder," Huang says. "That perception is definitely out there."

Melody Huang thinks an IT career is a viable choice for innovative, motivated kids, but her daughter isn't so sure.

Melody Huang thinks an IT career is a viable choice for innovative, motivated kids, but her daughter isn't so sure. -- Photo by Erika Larsen

Photo by Erika Larsen
It's not just the kids. After bottoming out following the dot-com bust, IT employment is back to 2001 levels, about 3.4 million people. Yet ask a group of IT pros whether they'd recommend the career to their kids, and many won't be as positive as Huang. "If your interest is motivated by the desire to innovate, to come up with new and better ideas, computer science continues to be one of the most viable fields for people good in math, science, and human behavior," she says.

Dead wrong, say others. "I would never advocate a career in IT for anyone," writes David Leitl, a systems administrator, in response to an InformationWeek blog. "If you enjoy working very hard and long hours for less money, I guess it's OK. Personally, I am considering getting my MBA and getting out of IT."

Read the quotes accompanying this article, and you could easily conclude that most of the kitchen-table discussions taking place are disparaging the profession. These are people who once loved IT work. Their comments come from our blog as we've asked people whether they would recommend the career and explored why IT-related enrollments are down 50% or more at most schools.

Blogger's Thoughts On Careers in IT

Not If You Want A Ferrari

Personally, I hope my kids never get into IT; I hope they become the driving force within any company that IT works for.

IT is still pretty much dark magic and not much higher than the neighborhood mechanic in many companies. They can really work on a CEO's Ferrari, but can't have one, even though they have specialized skills. With so many in the tech industry out there, we get our mechanics' licenses, hang them on the wall and puff out our chests and inflate our egos to each other with our extreme knowledge, saying I can make that computer sing in 3 notes ... while putting things in tune for the people who really generate the front-line revenue.

Don't get me wrong--I enjoy working in the industry and the people I work with have some of the best entrepreneurial spirit I've seen. But if I had my druthers, I'd want my kids driving the Ferrari and enjoying it instead of working on it and wishing they had one.

-- John Rosa

Outsourcing Is The Killer

I would NOT recommend that my children look for an IT career. I would recommend that my children look for skills and an occupation that can last them a lifetime (40+ years) and not be stolen away from them by a cheaper worker/industry changes. An occupation where they become more valued and recognized as the older and more experienced they get. With the trends and changes in IT, it is pretty clear that IT does not fit the bill. I would prefer that they concentrate on the professions, such as medical, legal, financial, animal medicine, etc.

-- Erin Wells
This article takes the other view: That there's a promising IT career path ahead, despite outsourcing, globalization, and automation. But IT-dependent companies have taken the tech-talent pipeline for granted, and more people and companies need to stand up as advocates to attract the brightest minds to study technology. The future of the tech industry in America will be determined in part by how many Melody Huangs it has, making their passionate argument for the future of the IT career.

As a senior lecturer at MIT, Jack Rockart has seen IT's popularity ebb and flow in the past. He's got the long view. In the field since 1957, he laid eyes on the second computer ever made. And this downturn in IT interest feels different to him.

The factors pile up. The dot-com bust caused major displacement. The computer industry's maturity means it has lost some cool, as many kids take technology for granted. But what's most damaging is the specter created by offshore competition and outsourcing. "It's not the amount of outsourcing taking place," Rockart says. "It's the impact on people of 'hey, the jobs are going away.' It's the expectation of what might happen."

The share of incoming undergrads indicating they'd major in computer science dropped 60% from the fall of 2000 to 2004, according to the Computing Research Association's analysis of data from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Even at Stanford, one of the world's best universities for IT, the number of computer-science majors last year was down 35% since its peak during the 2000 dot-com heyday. That part's not necessarily worrisome to Stanford computer-science chairman Bill Dally; he saw a "bimodal" student body during the dot-com boom--those who loved IT and science and those looking for a dot-com windfall. What worries Dally is the waning overall interest in engineering and science. Rockart agrees: "This is not just a problem with regard to information technology. This is a U.S. problem with regard to all technology."

In a survey of 251 CIOs and chief technology officers earlier this year, "finding talent" was cited more often than any other managerial challenge as having the most-significant effect on executing strategy over the next five years, McKinsey & Co. says. U.S. IT leaders describe a death-spiral scenario: Global competition drives kids from the field; declining enrollments mean fewer classes and opportunities on campus, which discourages even more potential candidates; companies won't pay high salaries for increasingly rare U.S. talent, so they push more work abroad; other countries fill in the talent gap and increase their leadership in technology.

"It's not like the U.S. has any lock on innovation and creativity. We don't," says Nancy Markle, former CIO of Arthur Andersen and a past president of the Society of Information Management. With smaller IT enrollments and a pending wave of baby-boomer retirements, the pinch is coming. "Five years from now, when we see the hole we've created, we're going to go the other way and start increasing opportunities and attracting students," she predicts. "But it's going to be too late."

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