Who will survive in IT? That’s a pretty grim way to frame the issue, especially considering recent good news. IT pay is rising again for some skills, according to staffing research firm Foote Partners. IT employment keeps inching upward — not by much, but at least it hasn’t dropped since March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Then again, we’ve all heard the Gartner predictions that IT shops will shrink by one-third in the first decade of the 21st century. And we’ve all watched that happening in recent years.

It’s no trivial question. Who will survive in IT — and how can you be one of the survivors?

Simple answer: It’s about value. Convince your boss that you’re really too valuable to the business to let go, and you will survive.

And how do you do that? The industry deep-thinkers will say that you won’t do it by working longer hours or choosing the right technical skill set or collecting the right credentials. That’s the way techies think. And pure techies are the IT people who won’t survive. They’re doomed, dead men walking, because they’ll never figure out that business smarts, not technical chops, are what create value in IT today.

Pure techies don’t see the point in understanding and navigating the labyrinth of office politics — why it’s important to know who’s got clout, whose users really matter and which projects have real backing. It’s too pointlessly Machiavellian to them. That’s why they’ll probably be blindsided by the next big purge that flushes them away.

And they don’t get why it’s important to understand the company they work for and the industry their company does business in. So they’ll make business-clueless mistakes. They’ll meet the specs for the Sarbanes-Oxley project, but it won’t pass the audit. They’ll hold off rolling out the new sales application because some widget isn’t working quite right, even though revenue is being lost. They’ll solve technical problems brilliantly but fail to fill real business needs.

They don’t care about how sales works, and supply chains, and billing, and everything else IT supports. They don’t see the big picture or the most critical details. So they’ll get the technology right but the business part wrong. They won’t add value. And when push comes to shove, they won’t survive.

That’s the conventional wisdom. And it’s half right. If you’re a pure techie who truly can’t wrap your brain around why business matters, you’re an endangered species.

But if this business stuff just seems illogical, chaotic and meaningless compared with the elegant rationality of technology, then there’s still hope. So let’s try once more to understand the business side — this time in pure techie terms.

Look at it this way: Your company and industry are a very badly designed system, built piecemeal and wired together in ways that work badly, if at all. It’s the worst kind of legacy junk — and your job is to keep it running.

And like most legacy junk, it can’t be replaced wholesale. You can only patch it, repair it, devise work-arounds and maybe refactor some small piece of the system now and then.

But before you can keep it running, much less improve it, you must understand the system’s operation: the inputs and outputs, the bottlenecks and critical paths, the operational requirements and parameters. In other words, you’ve got to know how the business works.

It’s just one more flaky, cranky, kludgy, unreliable, badly documented system. But master its quirks and intricacies, and you’ll have a good shot at adding business value after all.

And just maybe, pure techie or not, you’ll be a survivor, too.

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–Frank Hayes, Computerworld’s senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at [email protected].

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