Welcome to the world of Me Inc.

If you have an idea, plus technical skills, plus the soft skills to sell not only the idea but yourself as well, you are ready to enter the new IT industry in Canada, one in which entrepreneurship reigns.

In fact, ask Denis Cauvier about the IT entrepreneurial spirit in Canada and he’ll tell you it could well be the salvation of that job market.

Cauvier, founder of Anprior, Ont.-based Denis L. Cauvier Seminars International, said the Canadian IT industry will be in a lot of trouble if the entrepreneurial spirit dies out.

“We can grow (the economy) through entrepreneurship or we can kiss it off. We’re in a golden opportunity. The question is do we capitalize on it or do we take it for granted?”

He noted the ability to sell oneself, sell ideas and sell the newest version of a launch are becoming increasingly important in this economy. “A lot of people may say, ‘I’m a technician, I don’t need to sell.’ You do need to sell. It’s the art of influencing someone else to your way of thinking,” Cauvier said.

new skill set

Faye West, president of the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS), said the traditional IT person is changing to move in-line with a sales persona.

“The people who are only interested in sitting down and fulfilling the geek image generally are not the type of people who sell themselves well or are entrepreneurial,” West said. “It’s an additional skill set that people need in the industry right now.”

She pointed to the supply shortage of IT people in the workforce as one driving factor behind the boom in entrepreneurship.

“If there are a lot of jobs out there, and I as an individual can apply for, get, take on, any one of them at any time, that gives me a whole lot more flexibility and power,” she said.

West, whose “paid job” is director of information systems at the Alberta Research Council, said the job security IT people used to look for is not important to the new workforce. There is a limited skill supply and that is something people are going to take advantage of and look to as an opportunity, according to West.

months, not years

The cycle from hot to obsolete is about 18 months for IT professionals who do not take the time to retrain, according to Paul Swinwood, president of the Software Human Resource Council.

“This [applies to people who are] Java application developers and can really quickly and really well implement a business-to-business Web site, or they’re a fibre optic design guru, or they’re someone who has found that their skill is in demand. My challenge those people is to make sure that there is time in their schedule for upgrading their skills,” Swinwood stated.

He added that some hot skills only have a half life of one year, so people have to stay really current.

“There is no shortage of opportunities for people who have picked the right background and the right kind of training and have a willingness for life-long training,” he said.

Cauvier agreed, but said it’s not necessarily about who has the most letters behind their name or who has the most certificates, but who is the most well-rounded. “Employers are looking for people who can adapt.”

Bruce Powell, vice-president of Internet and emerging technologies at Toronto’s Mandrake Management Consultants Inc., said pure technical people can easily become commodities in today’s market.

“If somebody doesn’t keep their skills current or try to update them, then they will be replaced,” Powell said, adding when his firm, a headhunting agency, looks for the new IT professional, they look for someone with skills like leadership, team management and empathy.

Powell predicts the supply-and-demand imbalance of the IT job market will even out in the next two to three years.

“Whenever there’s a vacuum, there will be a whole flood of individuals going to school for those skills and moving to that industry from other industries and the supply and demand balances itself out,” he said. “However, the whole IT sector will have a need for people for some time to come.”

In West’s opinion, the need will continue for quite a long time. She pointed to the baby-boom population, which is getting ready for retirement.

“IT continues to expand and the available workforce is declining,” she stated. “There’s a whole bunch of people who are getting near to retirement age and will need replacing. If the pool is smaller and the hole is growing, the demand will continue.”

The Information Technology Institute’s Manager of Business to Business, Al Ogrodnik cited a study by the Information Technology Association in Canada which predicts the IT employee shortage will be 10 times what it is today by the year 2010.

“There are a number of reasons fuelling this growth in the IT industry,” Ogrodnik said. “IT is pervasive in every market, in everything we do, globally.”

He agreed with the others that the truly “hot skills” were those that resulted in a well-rounded professional.

“An IT person who had some business experience mixed in is in demand,” he said. “Companies will look to IT to give them a market advantage, so employers want IT people who can recognize a business opportunity.”

On their own

Ogrodnik said most IT people who have established their skills and their reputation would go the route of being individual contractors.

“Partially for the freedom and flexibility it offers, but also for the financial reward,” Ogrodnik said.

CanadaStartups.com founder and CEO Michael Corcoran noted a different variation on the entrepreneur trend.

“What we’re seeing is not only a huge increase in the numbers of entrepreneurs that are graduating from MBA schools and leaving large corporations to start their own companies, but we’re also seeing a huge increase in the number of people who are seeing friends do it and who want to get in on the ground floor,” he said.

Corcoran added these are the people who are entrepreneurs by nature but who don’t have a business plan or a big vision for their own company, they just know they could play a really important role if they found the right environment.

“There’s a mystique around start ups right now and I think we have the Internet and Jeff Bezos to thank for it,” Corcoran said.

He added that what is holding Canadian entrepreneurs back is the lack of publicity and enthusiasm for the success story.

“The unfortunate thing about Canadian success stories is that not many people are aware of them,” he said. “We just need to showcase more successes. That’s where the drive has to come from – the entrepreneurs.”

He noted Canadians are quick to point fingers and say, ‘Why haven’t we seen these success stories? Why don’t we have a Silicon Valley here?’

“And people are quick to blame the investment community for not being risk tolerant enough and they’re ready to blame the government for regulatory issues and capital gains taxes, but the drive really has to come from the entrepreneurs themselves,” Corcoran said.

He agreed that employers are seeking people who have demonstrated the ability to keep up with changing technologies. “Somebody who has made the evolution from Pascal to C++ to Java.”

He said the mind-boggling speeds at which hot skills change is just part of being in the IT industry and he added the skills aren’t changing any more rapidly than they did in the past.

“It’s just that more people are aware of IT issues and aware of the fact that we are in an industry that changes every 18 months,” Corcoran said.

Continuing imbalance

West noted she hopes soon one of those changes will include a larger female presence in the Canadian IT job market. She said a recent study showed that only 27 to 30 per cent of the IT job market was female, and that number is on the decrease.

“It’s amazing to me,” West said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years now and when I first started it never occurred to me that there would be any gender bias. It’s a brand new profession. It has no history of male dominance.”

She noted part of the low female number is that girls are not encouraged to pursue science and math, so even if they want to get into the IT field later they don’t have the prerequisites to consider it as a career.

“In the field of the world at large, (women) are 50 per cent to 52 per cent,” she said. “If women are half the workforce then they should be half the IT workforce as well.”

She did say that educators running post-degree intensive IT programs have told her their classes are now at least 50 per cent female.

“While that’s a hopeful sign, we still need girls coming out of school and going into IT careers,” West said.

She encouraged employers to make all people in the IT workforce realize the computing industry stretches beyond hard computing into fields such as graphic arts and Web design.

West said CIPS in Edmonton has been doing a lot of work with schools and their computer information sections.

Corcoran noted people are looking to improve the education system to introduce entrepreneurship in schools. He suggested employers need to be more supportive of entrepreneurial leanings. He cited Nortel as an example of a company doing just that for is employees.

“This is a company that has seen quite a few of its best and brightest leaving to start their own companies successfully,” Corcoran said, adding Nortel is not sending those people away “but saying, ‘That’s a good idea and we’ll support that,’ maybe with seed money or office space. The hope is that in the end it will be a technology that will benefit Nortel as well.”