Why some IT execs work themselves out of a job

Yesterday I had coffee with a senior technology executive with a large, well-known Canadian organization who is on the lookout for a new gig. It’s not like he got fired. In fact, he did nothing but good stuff during his long, impressive tenure. This included dealing with outsourcing firms, overhauling applications and virtualizing the firm’s infrastructure. I had to ask why he was leaving.

“I kind of worked myself out of a job,” he said. “But I’ve been a change agent all my life. I think if you’re not constantly trying to work yourself out of a job, you might be doing something wrong.”

Such a statement should strike fear in the hearts of HR people, and even CEOs, everywhere. The dream, after all, is to find great talent and do such a great job of developing (if not handsomely paying) such talent that it never leaves the company. Particularly in regards to IT staff, enterprises always say they can’t afford to lose these people. We sometimes fail to pay attention to how often they do.

You might argue that you can’t work yourself out of a job. There should always be things to improve, grow or fix. But depending on your core competency – I’m talking about that of the employee here, not the company – small incremental progress may not be the best way to spend your time. The executive I’m talking about isn’t interested in simply maintaining what he’s built. Other people can do that. He’s thinking less like a typical CIO and more like an entrepreneur. He told me he’s as interested in working for an aggressive startup with some hot technology as he is working for another large entity. Given that a lot of startups need the experience of someone who’s worked at a large entity, I can’t imagine him remaining free for long.

Despite all the excitement about Web 2.0, we haven’t seen the kind of turnover in the IT sector that occurred during the dot-com boom, and current economic conditions imply the IT skills shortage may not be the crisis it has been made out to be, at least for now. In fact, I suspect a lot of the personal issues around technology staff in the near future will involve Baby Boomers who want a new, different kind of challenge that does not necessarily involve simply retiring and consulting.

When senior management turns to its IT department for a project, it’s usually looking for “big bang” results. Over time, IT departments have learned not to take a big bang approach to launching projects, but they still focus on spectacular results. Once you’ve got there, those big bang IT overachievers quite naturally want to build upon their successes. That’s why some of them may feel they’ve made themselves redundant – and are proud of it.

Of course, everyone from outsourcers to Nicholas Carr have done what they can to suggest that based on a variety of factors, companies won’t really need their own IT staff. The bigger question is whether, by actually exceeding expectations and harnessing technology to drive business results, the IT staff decide they’re no longer needed either.

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