Is routine maintenance your first priority?

There really is an IT skills shortage, according to a Strategic Counsel survey released Thursday, but there were differing opinions between the executives, IT staff and students surveyed about its impact, and what role the IT staffer really plays in the enterprise, anyway.

The Strategic Counsel, a Toronto-based research and consulting firm, was commissioned by Microsoft Canada Co. to do the survey, which was conducted in January 2008 and comprised of 100 Canadian C-level executives, 200 IT professionals and 713 post-secondary students.

According to Andrew Dixon, director of Microsoft Windows Server Systems with Microsoft Canada, 90 per cent of the respondents agreed that there is a skills shortage in Canada, but their reactions to it differed. While 96 per cent of CIOs and 77 per cent of IT professionals think it’s a serious problem, only 60 per cent of C-level executives think it is a big deal.

The survey attributes this disconnect to the role that management sees IT as playing within the enterprise. More than three quarters (76 per cent) of C-level executives polled said that they see systems upkeep and maintenance as IT’s primary tasks. Nine in 10 respondents said IT executives should be consulted when the business is making a strategic move, despite the fact that 69 per cent of C-level executives think “reactive” (ahead of “strategic” and “innovative) when considering their IT staff.

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However, more than three-quarters of the IT professionals polled said they see themselves as more of an integral part of the business, making a difference. This response is even more widespread among the post-secondary students surveyed; 85 per cent of them cited a challenging work environment as a priority. “These differing opinions offer a view on how differently people see the role of IT in business,” said Dixon.

“This should be expected,” said Warren Shiau, a lead analyst with the Strategic Counsel. “When you look at the big picture, year after year, there are critics of Canadian underinvestment in capital. They don’t have the product capital or IT infrastructure in place to compete when the dollar is at par. So when you see that C-level executives don’t feel that IT skills, it’s just a classic symptom of that underinvestment.”

But don’t you often hear in the IT industry of the business types calling out for a more business-, mission- and brand-savvy IT employee? Shiau attributes this somewhat common occurrence to the more innovative, vocal minority, saying that you don’t hear about the majority of IT staffers that continue to be seen as a utility.

“And this huge gulf between IT and management then becomes self-perpetuating. If IT’s prime goal is to keep the lights on, then that’s what they’ll want to do. If they’re not conditioned to want to drive those business benefits, then they won’t go that way,” Shiau said. “It’s just a huge vicious circle. It’s (very) difficult to see how to combat the problem, as (these attitudes) seem to be ingrained.”

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An opportunity to really contribute might not even be afforded to them—the survey found that up to 80 per cent of the IT professional’s time is given over to routine maintenance. According to the survey, this isn’t in line with the career aspirations of the students, 77 per cent of whom say that they will look outside of Canada for fulfilling employment.

Half of the IT students and half of the non-IT students surveyed believed that Canada is currently lagging behind other high-tech countries when it comes to the adoption of new technologies. All these factors worsen the skills shortage, as they could contribute to brain-drain—or not choosing an IT career at all.

But the survey found that 73 per cent of the surveyed IT staffers were on the lookout for software that would enable them to spend less time tending their systems and more time innovating. Almost three-quarters of the polled IT students also thought that technology that would free up previous administration time for more engrossing projects would be very useful indeed.

The big software companies are right behind these yearnings with multi-million dollar awareness campaigns around their product’s increased automation and reduced administration time capabilities, according to Shiau. Microsoft Canada timed the release of the survey with the launch this week of several of its most key products, including the newest iterations of SQL Server, Windows Server, and Visual Studio and Visual Basic, all of which tie right into IT professionals’ desire for less time wastage on administration tasks.

“With patching, security updating, and installing new Web servers, we can help them do that (administration work) much more efficiently now,” said Dixon.

Said Shiau: “All the new platforms that are being introduced these days can help with this—the focus is always on taking IT time away from maintenance and upkeep. ‘Less keystrokes,’ ‘reduced administration’: you’re hearing that from everybody now.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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