Reduced to the simplest terms, the job of an IT professional is tied to three pivot points: people, money and headaches. Not enough of the first two, way too many of the third.
In an effort to shine a little light into those dark corners, ComputerWorld Canada asked seven IT professionals about their budgets, the problems that keep biting them on the backside, the industry in which they work and who they really need to hire.
The panel we assembled includes: Lorenzo Palermo, IT supervisor at William F. White Ltd. in Toronto; Michael Bauer, senior director of IT services for the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.; Leonard Slipp, corporate sales engineer for Java products at KL Group Inc. in Toronto; John Thorp, DMR vice-president in Victoria; Victoria A. Hailey, SPICE Regional Trials Coordinator for Canada and Latin America in Toronto; Alfred Ayache, president of Toronto-based development firm Last Byte Inc. and of the Toronto Delphi User Group (TDUG); and Gordon Cormack, professor of computer science, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ont.
Here’s what they said. Some bits will find you nodding your head, others you won’t buy at all. In either case, let us in on your answers to these questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will the coming new year free up budgetary dollars, and if so, where will the money be spent?
“In our case Y2K has not really bit into our budget. We really haven’t had any fear of Y2K, in terms of our operating systems. We have applied patches, we do our testing and that sort of thing, but I don’t think it really put a dent in our budget.”
“Given the Ontario government’s current funding strategy toward universities, we’re not likely to have much flexibility in our IT budget. Given the limited financial resources, we’ll likely focus on increased on-line storage capabilities, security, and improving core services like e-mail. If we had more budgetary flexibility, we’d likely look to storage area networks, wireless data connectivity and greater use of thin client technology in offices, labs and classrooms.”
“We didn’t hold back much in terms of investments this year – in terms of our budget, Y2K didn’t really have a direct impact on us. For the coming year, we are looking at automating our sales force software within the sales and marketing area. We’ve got a system in place already, but we want to expand on that more and tailor it more to our needs.”
“I think there’s a huge latent backlog, which is going to force the budget up. Most people seem to want to spend money on one of two things: e-commerce, whatever that means to individual people, and Customer Relationship Management.”
What on-going IT problem would you like to see finally resolved?
“A greater consistency from Microsoft. It would be nice if they would say, ‘We have an operating system, we allow you to do policies and procedures but we haven’t given [you] a good tool for marrying it up with all of the other extra tools that we sell.’
“When you install [applications] the first thing they do is circumvent all of your policies and profiles, and you have to go in there and say, ‘Look, this is what we want.’ I just wish [Microsoft’s] other products would respect what, in the OS, is already restricted.”
“Better ways to manage heterogeneous networks, systems and applications, and to be able to model, using real data, the impact of changes to the computing environment. Right now, we have to use multiple tools because of the diversity of equipment and they are limited in helping us determine network problems, system and application performance problems, and to do capacity and change planning.”
“Lack of commitment and resources from senior management to a focus on continual process improvement. Everything’s a process – get it right and you increase the chances of everything else going right.”
Victoria A. Hailey
“I think system management is still a huge problem – even though people are selling expensive tools, I don’t really see things getting better. People put together systems that are not maintainable, and you’re forced to upgrade, or else things stop working. And yet, upgrades always cause problems – incompatibility among major things and moving targets as standards. People wouldn’t put up with this in other domains – if I were running a machine shop and just spent a million dollars tooling it, I would not regard it as acceptable if a year down the line the tools stopped working and had to be replaced or rejuvenated at a huge cost.”
“The rate of change is getting overwhelming – products don’t have time to really mature well. It’s so rush, rush, rush that the quality of implementations [suffer] throughout the whole software industry. That’s one thing that’s been sort of disappointing with this industry. Something that I’d like to see: let’s step off this treadmill so it isn’t going quite so fast, and do a better job of implementation with the technology that we already have.”
“Microsoft. By resolved, I mean I would like to see them losing their stranglehold or the monopoly that they have so that we can have true competition and innovation in this field. If I had a Christmas present to give to the world, it would be that Microsoft would be split into three or four different companies, one for OS, one for applications, one for development tools and possibly one for Internet applications.”
“I really want to see this issue of getting measurable value out of IT-enabled change dealt with. I think this on-going question of “Am I getting value for my IT investment?” is being increasingly asked. And I’d like to see organizations recognize that it’s really the wrong question because you don’t get value out of IT per se at all. You only get value out of the change programs that IT enables.”
How would you characterize the health of the IT industry?
“I can’t give it a 100 per cent bill of health. The reason for my saying that is in order to honour the warranty on our servers…you [have to] use their technicians to do certain things, and more so than not we end up showing them how to do it. There seems to be a diploma mill for IT people out there: ‘Take our course, spend five or six grand or what ever it is , and you’re gonna be a programmer.’
“We had a person come in, and of course he was Microsoft certified, network engineer and all of that, and Novell certified, and the guy opened up his briefcase and he had a pad of paper, a pencil and his manual for the course, and I thought right then and there, ‘I’m in trouble.’ You run into this all the time, and these guys are $115, $120, $140 an hour. I don’t want to slag them all because we have had some brilliant people…but for the most part we don’t have a lot of confidence when we have someone from the outside come in.”
“Poor compared to Europe, the United States, Japan and Australia. Compared to other countries, the Canadian government pays no attention to improving the IT industry either through initiatives or other avenues.”
Victoria A. Hailey
“Something has to be done about the general competitiveness of the industry. There’s just more money in the system south of the border. Sure people are attracted by salaries, but they are also attracted by a cool environment that has all the latest technologies and interesting problems to work on. So I think there are some IT industries that are doing reasonably well in Canada, but I think it is an uphill battle.”
“I think overall it’s very good – there’s an extraordinary amount of talent in it. I’m really impressed with that. For the most part I am really impressed with the people coming out of universities, but this is an industry that is all-consuming, and I have to wonder about the on-going health of that atmosphere.”
“It’s wonderful, the only thing that I’m concerned about, that we’re all concerned about, is the brain drain. We see some of our best and brightest developers deciding that they’re willing to take the social hit and go down to the States.”
“It’s probably fairly healthy in terms of the level of activity. I’d like to see it healthier in terms of that activity being focused on things that really drive value for organizations. I think that we’re still too hung up on building requirements for technology based on the features of the technology and not on the business outcomes that the technology is going to leverage. Everyone’s rushing into e-commerce. I describe it as lemmings flocking to the e-commerce cliff. But they’ve really got to step back and say, ‘What is it I really want as a business? What do I want to be and what do I want to get out of e-commerce and, therefore, how do I use the right IT the right way to achieve those adjectives?’ I listen to a lot of people telling me ‘We can’t do business cases for e-commerce, we just have to be in it – we can’t plan, we just have to do it.’ I don’t agree with that.”
What IT job categories are most understaffed?
“Database administrators, Unix system administrators, network design and diagnosis specialists.”
“We need people who are curious and very active in multi-disciplinary things. People who can work with different cultures – go between business and technology, or cultures between here in Toronto vs. Silicon Valley. Just to be able to interact very effectively and very naturally between all the different environments – that is a great skill set for people to have nowadays.”
“I think there’s a mismatch of skills at the moment. I think we have a lot of people with legacy skills, and we’re looking for new skills and newer technologies. Plus, I think we need people who can be the translators between business and technology, who can help business understand how to use the technology and really help technology understand how they need to support the business-side.”
Say the first thing that pops into your mind
ComputerWorld Canada took our panellists through a little free-association exercise. We asked them to respond to five words – Hype, Crucial, Disappointing, Effective, and Overpriced – with the first words that occurred to them. Many of the answers are not surprising, but a few certainly are.
Crucial – competent people
Disappointing – the marketing of silver bullets
Effective – PDAs
Overpriced – large scale propriety monolithic systems
Hype – media
Crucial – standards
Disappointing – Microsoft’s reliability
Effective – Web communication
Overpriced – memory
Victoria A. Hailey
Hype – Y2K
Crucial – Internet access
Overpriced – Network and systems management software
Hype – the Internet
Crucial – the Internet
Disappointing – lack of standards and interoperability
Overpriced – shrink-wrapped software
Hype – Microsoft
Crucial – Linux
Disappointing – Windows
Effective – frameworks
Overpriced – design tools
Hype – A lot of stuff around e-commerce and CRM, and people are buying that over-hype.
Crucial – Organizations need to understand what systems are crucial to their success in the future and focus their attention on those.
Disappointing – results. I think we’re continuing to see very disappointing results from the investments in technology.
Hype – Y2K
Crucial – network security
Disappointing – Windows 2000
Effective -Novell NetWare 5
Overpriced – Good lord, every piece of software or Visual Studio upgrade