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11/7/2014
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IT Talent Shortage: Ugly Truths

IT pros are starting to feel disposable. Wake up, IT leaders: Relationships like this don't survive.

Successful IT people are fierce, smart, generous, proud, and brutally honest. When I wrote about the IT talent shortage debate, I expected passionate reader email about painful job hunting, and I got it.

"As one of the 'unemployable' IT workers with 3 decades of experience, I think you are missing something," one reader emailed me. "The one thing that was not discussed is how we are treating the people as disposable commodities in an industry where it can take decades to develop the knowledge, wisdom, and experience that is required."

Disposable commodities. Take that in for a minute. For many people, I bet it hit home instantly. He's not the only person to voice that sentiment to me in the past few weeks as I researched this article, but he crystallized it.

In a quest for business and operational speed, has IT started treating its most valuable resource, its people, as disposable?

[Hear from CIOs, CTOs, and recruiters on what it takes to stand out during an IT job search. Read 9 IT Job Hunt Tips For Beginners.]

I heard how the pressure for speed is affecting all sides -- IT leaders, HR pros, recruiters, and job hunters -- as I researched the supposed talent shortage. Today's business environment demands that IT move at a much faster pace. That means companies spin up IT projects quickly and hire people -- often as contractors, sometime as employees -- keyed to those projects. 

Job hunters say the hiring process has become inflexible to the point of being broken. (And in our survey research for this story, 30% of hiring managers agreed that the process is broken.) You're a multi-faceted IT professional but not a 100% perfect specifications fit? The project manager will never even see your resume.

Project manager and HR can't find the right person quickly enough? Bring in a contractor. Show him or her the door when the project is done. Next project. Rinse, repeat.

Talent development discipline such as mentoring, career-development plans, rotations for budding stars among functional teams -- all that gets harder when you are working on an agile development schedule, one reader said, where the project managers rule -- and time rules the project managers.

Consider this comment from reader CliffBerg: "I think the disconnect is between IT leadership and project level leadership. Agile projects in particular: there is so much pressure to start producing immediately (team "velocity" is measured continuously)."

IT leaders, is it any wonder people start to feel like disposable commodities in this kind of environment?

Likewise, can you honestly inspire young people to pursue IT careers if this is the way they will be treated?

On one hand, CIOs often tell me that talent worries keep them up at night. Those darn Millennials, the smart ones who really stand out, job hop as soon

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Laurianne McLaughlin currently serves as InformationWeek.com's Editor-in-Chief, overseeing daily online editorial operations. Prior to joining InformationWeek in May, 2011, she was managing editor at CIO.com. Her writing and editing work has won multiple ASBPE (American ... View Full Bio
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Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/11/2014 | 11:50:08 AM
Re: You cannot ignore the root cause
People like Padma get the need for a diverse team with various backgrounds. I am sure she knows many technology experts with a wide range of educational backgrounds. Recruiters on the front lines, however, are rewarded for one thing: quickly matching candidates that are the most likely to meet the hiring manager's needs. They are not rewarded for presenting a great but unusual candidate. This is true in many fields, not just IT. I empathize with the demands on the recruiters, but I am not a fan of this narrow-match style of hiring. Some of the smartest people I know are a lot more than the numbers and buzzwords on their resumes.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/11/2014 | 11:42:57 AM
Re: MS layoffs
MS has long been one of the loudest voices calling for H-1B program expansion.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/10/2014 | 8:00:33 PM
Re: You cannot ignore the root cause
"Get rid of the H-1B and you will have companies hiring even English majors to do IT work."

Even English majors?!?! Heaven forbid.

I'm joking, but man, as someone who actually has an English degree, I've experienced enormous condescension from some Silicon Valley folks who think that if you majored in the humanities, it must be because you're not smart enough to have majored in a "real" subject. I recognize that bbuff isn't saying this; in fact, he indicated the precise opposite—that an English major, with some employer support, is perfectly capable of handling a more technical job. But since that condescension is out there, I feel obligated to complain about it.

I'm not suggesting companies should hire English, Philosophy and Art students who have no coding skill—but I recently had a conversation with an exec from a pretty big company who actually winced when I told him I have an English degree, almost as though I'd told him I'd just been diagnosed with an illness or something. It's one thing for tech companies to invest more recruitment effort in applicants with technical degrees—that's just smart, since this group of people is, on average, going to produce more qualified employees. But it's another thing - a stupider and more insulting thing - for people to dismiss humanities majors as a general rule.

Where I went to school, for example, an English degree would constitute at most one-third of one's unit requirements, and most of us used our remaining course flexibility to develop at least some rudimentary tech skills. Are these skills enough for these English majors to become engineers after graduation? No, not often-- but the skills are certainly adequate for many of these people to contribute in meaningful ways to technical projects. An attitude that instinctively looks down on people with humanities degrees ignores:

a) that linguistic structures with which serious humanities students are acquainted will actually translate quite nicely into understandings of coding syntax;

b) that linguists and critical theory in general cultivate an understanding of abstraction that can actually be pretty useful for developing a working knowledge of how systems are built and how they interact;

c) that  humanities majors will often have unique insights into end user expectations and needs (not all end users are engineers, after all); 

d) that some of us who majored in the humanities are actually plenty capable with math and science but just happened to find other topics worth studying.

All that complaining side, I have met some tech execs who've told me (without my solicitation, no less) that they'd like to see a more diverse mixture of academic backgrounds working in the tech industry. Earlier this year, for example, Padma Warrior, Cisco's CTO, surprised me with this sort of sentiment; I was chatting with her about tech opportunities for women (an issue she is passionate about) and was surprised when she responded that the tech industry needs not only more female perspectives, but more perspectives from people who didn't necessarily major in tech fields.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/10/2014 | 7:20:28 PM
Re: IT Talent: Ugly "Realities"
"And while I did my best to put that short sighted CEO in his place, a terrific CEO/leader his worth his weight in gold to the overall company."

That's good to hear, Terry-- it sounds like you're working with someone who doesn't elevate his own interests above those of the company and its employees. And it's important to praise great executives, just as it is to criticize lousy/ overly greedy ones. Polarization, one way or the other, is almost never helpful.

 
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/10/2014 | 7:02:09 PM
Re: MS layoffs
No doubt, the visa issue is an important hot button topic, and not just for Microsoft.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/10/2014 | 6:58:04 PM
Re: You cannot ignore the root cause
"Actually, they outsource the entry levels. And import the senior levels. Entry level jobs here are hard to find. So there is a shortage in senior levels."

This is definitely a story I hear from friends and acquaintances around Silicon Valley. It's not a huge problem for, say, someone who has a degree in CS or MS&E from Stanford. But for people (even young people) who are trying to switch careers, the problem is quite pronounced. Some Silicon Valley companies talk as though all you need to get a tech job is a bit of gumption and some long hours with Code Academy in order to gain the skills for basic tech jobs. In a sense, these companies are telling the truth, but they're exaggerating the situation in order to score PR points. When these companies outsource so many jobs, where are these Code Academy graduates (at least the domestic ones) supposed to enter the industry? I've heard from several people who basically re-invented themselves by learning a bunch of new skills but who can't get the time of day in Silicon Valley because a) even if they know Java, they might also have a psych or history degree, which seems to be a black mark against their tech credentials, or b) even if their skills are acknowledged, the entry-level jobs for which they're suited simply aren't available.

That said, I know many people who have successfully managed to switch careers into tech, or who have found good jobs, despite the impacts of outsourcing. I've also met people who are amazing engineers who began their careers as foreign employees working on outsourced work, and who earned their spots at big Silicon Valley companies. So it's important not to generalize too much, one way or the other. But outsourcing is definitely a hot button issue, from what I've perceived.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/10/2014 | 6:43:46 PM
Re: MS layoffs
@hho927,

I see where you're coming from, and actually think we probably agree more than we disagree-- perhaps not about Microsoft in particular, but about the objectionable ways in which layoffs are often conducted. My point isn't that Microsoft is beyond criticism for its layoffs; as I mentioned, we could easily question the dissolution of individual teams, the termination of individual workers, or why the layoffs needed to be so large. But it's one thing to denounce the concept of layoffs as a matter of principle, and another to more granularly investigate how a specific layoff was executed and how that process should be judged. It's also one thing to focus on a company, just because it happens to be a recent or convenient example, and another thing to focus on the social, legal and economic structures that emboldened that company to behave the way it has.

It's definitely true that the reduced head count benefits Microsoft's bottom line, at least in the short term, though I'd question whether the stock rally (which began before the layoffs were announced) can be solely attributed to Microsoft's reduction effort, as opposed to investor enthusiasm for the Ballmer-to-Nadella change. Believe me, I sympathize with the idea that "cost cutting" is often inordinately - and often inappropriately - shouldered by workers, and I'd venture that I'm farther to the left on employer-employee relations than most people out there. I agree with your implication that when employers cut resources or people, they sometimes do so for the wrong reasons (e.g. I've seen how the quarterly bonus cycle corrupts decision-making across the mid-to-senior management level). I also think employers sometimes cut jobs or resources prematurely, abandoing assets that might be expensive in the short-term but that still add lots of value over the long-term.

That said, I'm still hesitant to say we have enough insight into Microsoft's decision-making to simply assume the company, by virtue of executing such a large layoff, is some kind of poster child for making workers feel fungible, especially since the Nokia acquisition and leadership change injected a ton of variables into the company's decision-making process. The how and why are important too, not just the what and who of the situation. Some layoffs are a way for bosses to save their own tails after making a mistake, some layoffs are a way for investors and senior execs to financially benefit at workers' expense, and some layoffs are a way for a company that's become too unwieldy to restore (or at least try to restore) a culture of focus and agility. Perhaps Microsoft's layoffs fall into one of these first two, more ignominious categories-- but then again, perhaps it's the third. Most likely, given its scale, Microsoft's layoffs include aspects of all three layoff types I've just identified, as well as others that I haven't. None of these points are meant to diminish the very intimate and material ways Microsoft's layoffs have made some workers' lives more difficult-- and if Microsoft didn't offer generous packages to  departing employees, the company certainly deserves criticism. But again, that's an issue of how and why the job cuts were enacted, not of the fact that the job cuts happened in the first place.

It's tough to defend when a company's leadership messes up, lays off a bunch of people to correct the balance sheet, and then continues to reign, as if they'd never made a mistake. I think many people would prefer to see the leaders fall on their swords in this situation, rather than making the workers suffer-- and with a few qualifications, I'd agree with that perspective. But in Microsoft's case, much of the previous leadership actually has been removed (though it's hard to say any of them were punished for poor decisions, since they were all very well compensated by the time they left). Again, this doesn't we should absolve the company of any wrongdoing, but it does distinguish this situation from other layoffs to which we might draw comparisons. Just as it's easy to be outraged with Microsoft for eliminating so many workers, it's equally easy to argue that Microsoft made a responsible decision, at least according to the way "responsible" is defined under the company's fiduciary duties and the concept of business ethics with which MBA students are indoctrinated in graduate schools. It's also possible (though not necessarily easy, at least in an empirical sense) to argue the layoffs will pave the path for company growth, and thus a greater number of jobs in the future-- though I'll grant you that companies frequently and deceptively champion this line of thinking, even though promised "trickle down" benefits sometimes fail to materialize. To be clear, I'm not saying Microsoft was responsible or ethical in an absolute sense, or even according to what I'd personally consider ethical. Rather, I'm talking about the layoffs according to the definitions that prevail on Wall Street and in the corporate world, and that much of the rest of our culture has become complicit in tacitly supporting. From this point of view, it makes less sense to single out Microsoft for scorn than to question the trajectory and ethics of our economic system.

Put another way, I'm not sure that focusing on Microsoft isn't a bit like focusing on a single, burning tree while the rest of the forest is reduced to ash. Some companies and industries are like children-- they'll misbehave until they're taught to behave otherwise. But is that a problem with the kids, or with the rules those kids have been taught? Companies and industries sometimes deserve condemnation, but their actions are often symptoms of deeper, more systemic problems-- and if we could agree on the problems, we could do more to define ethical employer relations, and to hold companies accountable when they treat workers like insects. I'd argue that incongruences among the ways we think about jobs, the ways we elect policy makers, and the ways we choose which products to buy are more important (at least in a macro, societal sense)  than the policies of any single company, such as Microsoft. So again, I don't mean to absolve Microsoft of the guilt it should feel for putting people out of work; rather, I mean to question why we should single out Microsoft as some kind of exemplar of workplace malfeasance when we have only a partial vantage into Microsoft's goals for the reduction, and when root issues (i.e. if we're concerned about job security, why have we allowed workers' legal protections to be diminished by certain political forces? Which protections should be reinstated, and which would overly impede companies from growing? How are a businesses' rights alike and different than those of a person? How is the tax code promoting or discouraging job growth? What is the optimal use of contract workers? etc.) are so much more relevant to cultural outcomes.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/10/2014 | 1:06:46 PM
Re: You cannot ignore the root cause
Outsourcing happens at most levels of IT but your point about entry-level is well-taken. The more entry-level IT jobs that get outsourced or filled by H-1B slots, the fewer US IT pros that will be available in the midlevel experience ranks. What's the entry-level hiring outlook at your companies, readers?
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/10/2014 | 11:22:47 AM
Re: You cannot ignore the root cause
H-1B isn't ignored here, and it's a complex subject in itself. There is no question H-1B plays a role in the talent market dynamics.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/8/2014 | 5:19:35 AM
Re: It's all about profit
"MSFT is just an example. MSFT stock price is going up that keeps lots of rich people,shareholders happy but not the people MS are laying off. The main reason is to get the stock price out of doldrum. Share price goes up at worker expense."

I'm not sure I agree, largely because I don't think the public has enough insight into the situation to make that sort of accusation. I'd be curious to know the rationale for some of the layoffs, such as those in the Silicon Valley research division, whose dismantling I found particularly unfortunate. But the majority of the Microsoft layoffs involve the acquisition of all those Nokia employees, many of whom has skills that duplicated those of people already on Microsoft's payroll. We can make arguments that Microsoft should have found ways to leverage this talent with new roles, or that it could have retrained people, etc. But that's different than the argument you're making-- which seems to be that Microsoft laid them off so it could outsource the work to someone cheaper. While I've certainly seen some outrageous instances of outsourced labor in Silicon Valley, I'm not sure we can say that Microsoft's layoffs belong in the same category. Nadella didn't necessarily want to buy Nokia-- but he had to deal with the acquisition once he took the top job. Unless we want to argue layoffs are wrong a prior (which is a hard thing to argue), I don't think we can conclusively say that Nadella's decision was irresponsible or corrupt. A lower headcount sometimes helps a business to run better, and if a business runs better, sometimes it benefits many employees, not just the C-level execs who get big bonuses. Microsoft deserves to be questioned for laying off so many people—but I'm not sure, without additional evidence, that we can say he acted unethically. Like I said, he could have found a use for all that talent, and perhaps he'll end up losing in the long run because he failed to utilize the new employees—but that's a different criticism than the one you've suggested. Maybe he needed to shed payroll to get a bonus—but we have no way of knowing if such thinking was at the forefront of his motives. For what it's worth, Microsoft pays its employees very well, which doesn't necessarily mean it isn't engaged in any objectionable labor practices. But it is a reason why Microsoft (at least under its current leadership) isn't the first company I think of when I think about the most offensive purveyors of corporate greed.
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