Turning on to technology

Robert Ford didn’t always want to work in information technology. In fact the English literature graduate fell into the role after his father approached him with a job offer in the early ’80s.

“Nobody knew nothin’ about personal computers at that point. Dad said ‘If you can figure this out, you can stop being a security guard and come work for me.’ So, I went, ‘Oh, there’s a tough choice.'”

Ford, who is now president of his own Vancouver-based IT consulting company, Quokka Systems Inc., has run the gamut of technology jobs from IT training to data modelling. His advice to people who want to be successful in IT?

“Learn everything. Learn it all, because we have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Unfortunately, even today the perception remains that IT training is a “nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary,” Ford said.

“And that, to me, has been one of the big crimes in North America – that so much money could have been saved by properly training some of the people on the basics of what’s going on,” he said.

“But it’s still a tough-guy mentality: ‘Oh, well I figured it out by reading the manual, so can you.’ That may be true…if you can learn that way. However, is that the most cost-effective way to learn? No one asked that question. Going to a training class was always considered a frill, and a privilege,” Ford said.

“I’m a weird independent consultant because I’ll actually spend money on the people. Because it’s a bit of a myth that people walk in as freshly-minted consultants who know everything. They almost certainly can’t know everything, and it would be absurd for them to believe otherwise.”

Ford has hired people with all sorts of skills. By far, good IT generalists are the hardest people to find, he said.

“People have fallen for the old ‘I should be a database person, I should be a Java person’ and my view is that in the technology world you need to be a jack of all trades. There’s just no other way to do it.”

Hershel Harris, IBM Corp.’s vice-president of WebSphere application server development and director of the company’s Toronto software lab, echoed that opinion.

“There’s no longer a homogeneous set of jobs out there,” he said.

“The new graduates can pick one, pick another. There’s a dramatic difference in the nature of dot-com companies, vs. companies like IBM, vs. working in the IT shop for a bank. And students understand those differences and they are studying those differences,” Harris said.

“The (skills) shortage that we see today is not letting up. Next year it’s going to be worse, and the year after that it will be worse still. So we need to make sure that we get the kind of productivity that comes from having the best people, because we’re not going to create enough programmers to solve tomorrow’s problems.”

Don’t fence me in

In an effort to understand just what tomorrow’s techies want from future employers, IBM commissioned a study from Sarnia, Ont.-based market research firm Thorne Butte: Decision Partners Inc. The company surveyed several international post-secondary students enrolled in various technology-related courses of study to determine what was most important to them. Of the Canadian students, a creative, collaborative work environment was rated the number one draw, according to partner and co-author of the study, Sarah Thorne.

Life-long learning was also deemed important, as was the opportunity to work with leading-edge technology – they don’t want to be “stuck in cubicles” and they don’t want to be bored, Thorne said.

“They want the opportunity to continue to learn and grow in their fields. They want the ability to be creative – these people like to solve problems.”

Open work policies were another key aspect, she said. “They want the flexibility to work from home, they want [to be able] to work in an environment where nobody’s punching a time-clock.”

She pointed out that responses varied according to what part of the world the respondents lived. For instance, while Canadian students rated work-life balance and creative work atmosphere very highly, respondents from Asia-Pacific felt that the opportunity to work in a team environment was the most crucial draw.

Ford agreed that work atmosphere which suits your personality is definitely important.

“If you have the opportunity to work with people you respect and like, go for it. Because the technology side of it gets pretty boring after a while,” he said.

Often students have an idea of the type of company they’d like to work for before they even graduate. Donny Cheung, a pure mathematics student at the University of Waterloo, said he’d like to work for a technology start-up, but stressed the allure isn’t money.

“I think the challenges of a start-up company are higher. Not (necessarily) larger challenges, but different ones. Challenges that would suit me better,” he said.

Cheung added, however, that even if money’s not the priority, it does make a difference. “If you hold the salary more or less fixed, then of course environment’s going to be the limiting factor. [But] just like everyone else, I’ve got my price too. If you offered me enough money, I would work anywhere. You know if you offered me a billion dollars to work in a sewage dump for four years, then I would be off to the sewage dump. There’s no question.”

Leif Wickland, a computer science student at LeTourneau University in Longview Tex., hasn’t decided if he’d like to work for a start-up or a big company when he graduates. But wherever he goes, his work-life balance will be the number one consideration, he said.

“What’s really important to me is geographic location of the job, because I’d like to be near someplace where I can hike and ski. And I’d like to be somewhere where I can have a decent work life – that’s important to me.”

Nowadays, post-secondary education isn’t just for high-school graduates learning skills in order to find their first “real” jobs. As the IT industry matures, some self-proclaimed old-time techies are starting to redefine their roles and skillsets as well.

Leonard Slipp, director of client services with Toronto-based Sitraka Software, was a Java programmer for many years but found himself wanting more of a leadership role. So at the age of 36, he went to back to university and got his MBA.

“There was some frustration (before) because I didn’t really have the authority to do the things that I saw really needed to be done.”

Now seeing the technology world from both sides, Slipp compared the ability to converse fluently with technical people and managers to being bilingual. “I really admire people who can go from one culture to another and be very literate and conversant. And it’s the same way between business and technology – they are quite different cultures, ” he said.

“Individuals can have a lot of creativity in how they define themselves and their skill sets and what they can offer to the market. A painter needs to know some aspect of the different colours, different paint characteristics and types of brushes. So once you know the tools, then you can be a lot more creative.”

Who will pay?

It’s obvious that continuing education and life-long learning is crucial today. But that fact brings with it it’s own set of questions, said Paul Swinwood, president and CEO of the Ottawa-based Software Human Resource Council (SHRC).

“As we move to more of a knowledge-based economy, the biggest challenge we have, especially in Ontario, is that we have downloaded the cost of creating [this] economy onto the individuals,” he said.

“Our cutbacks in education, our doubling the cost of tuition, it’s exactly the wrong time in our history to be doing that. Given that we are such a small economy…we need to have every available knowledge worker educated, as well as trained.”

Taking a six-week training course on Java or Visual Basic is not the same as getting a diploma or a degree at a college or university, he stressed.

“From my point of view we should be doubling the number of people who are in our post-graduate programs, in everything from arts, science, history, geography. It doesn’t make any difference what their educational background is. Once they get a knowledge domain, the knowledge-based economy can give them the tools they need to apply that.”

In fact, studies indicate that more than 50 per cent of companies train staff upon hiring, rather than hiring people with exactly the right skills already in place, he said.

In order to appease this growing demand, Canada needs a national vision, and more money needs to go to the classrooms.

“How do you pay for it? I don’t have any easy solution to that one. But if it is a priority of Canada to be a player in the knowledge-based economy, then that has to become a priority on our expenditures. So some decisions have to be made,” Swinwood said.

“And if it’s not a priority for Canada, then we’d better stop bitching about it, and continue to just play the way we are.”