Where did all the exciting IT jobs go?

It wasn’t too long ago that people considered IT an exciting career choice. How times have changed. There is significant unemployment among IT professionals. Outsourcing may be partly to blame, but changes in employment patterns have also played their role. One consequence is that enrollment in computer studies programs has fallen off, in some cases by more than 50 per cent.

Several recent events symbolized the changes sweeping across the IT field. Microsoft Corp. chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates used to give his keynote address at the Computer Dealers Exposition (Comdex), which cancelled its big Las Vegas show in 2004. Now Gates addresses Consumer Electronic Show (CES) attendees. The excitement has moved from computer dealers to consumer electronics.

IBM, which had an enviable track record as a PC technology innovator, has withdrawn from PC manufacturing, selling its PC division to Chinese firm, Lenovo. Some feel that Dell has benefited from IBM’s move. Dell has built its reputation on excellence in marketing, manufacturing, distribution and support — not on technological innovation. The market no longer rewards that kind of creativity.

The consumer electronics space continues to heat up. Games are outselling DVD movies and the film camera market has almost disappeared. Industry pundits are crediting the iPod with turning around the fortunes of Apple. Microsoft is pushing to place Windows at the centre of home entertainment systems. Companies are making and losing fortunes as the dynamic shifts from better technology to better consumer products.

Bell Canada now offers digital entertainment over twisted copper wires running into condos. The technology offers 10Mbps transmission from the basement wiring closet into individual units. One single twisted pair is enough to provide digital video-on-demand, high speed Internet access and practically an unlimited number of voice lines.

The extension of networks and the direct competition between telephone and cable companies means services are now available over telephone wires, cable connections and hydro lines, as well as through the air. The old monopolies are disappearing with the arrival of new service providers and a growing opportunity to extend the reach of IT systems.

There’s still excitement in IT, but it’s moved out to the edge. The software market has shifted from customized to off-the-shelf systems. Sarbanes-Oxley and Canada’s Bill 198 effectively penalize innovation, demanding a documented and disciplined approach to IT that is regimented, predictable and cost-effective. Technological innovation is no longer a critical success factor.

Of great importance, however, are standards such as CobiT, ITIL and CMM — sources for this best-practices discipline. IT workers should step up to this job; otherwise, outsiders will complete the task.

A full range of business problems and opportunities continues to challenge people in IT. Often the solution will require new uses for technology within the organization. The technology may be standard and easy-to-understand, but to invent and apply new ways of using that technology within a business context is anything but standard. This kind of innovation will continue to be a challenge in the foreseeable future.

If IT professionals feel they need a change, they may want to consider switching to consumer and communication product development and management. Traditional IT’s business challenges still demand a high level of knowledge, understanding and commitment from the professional — it’s just not as exciting as it used to be.

Fabian is a senior management and systems consultant in Toronto. He can be reached at robert@fabian.ca.

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