by January 12, 1999 0 comments

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us …” Charles Dickens penned these immortal lines to describe the French Revolution, but they could have been written to describe IT careers in the new millennium. The fact of the matter is that the future is not going to be uniformly rosy.

If that surprises you, consider the following. (1) There are 1,376 Infosys employees with stock options valued at more than Rs 10 lakh, 412 employees with options valued at more than a crore and 97 employees with options worth over a million dollars
(Rs 4.4 crore) (2) A high-profile training institute that promises guaranteed placements and charges over Rs 2 lakh per student is on the verge of closure. Rumor has it that there are over 2,000 students who’ve completed the course, but haven’t been able to find a job (3) A small, situations vacant, non-display advertisement in a leading daily for programmers attracts 200 applications, with most of the applicants flouting Microsoft certification. For every one professional who makes it, there are at least 10 whose careers will flounder.
There are four salient aspects of the IT job market in the new millennium. Let’s look at these in some detail.

Confusion everywhere
As a consultant, I have lots of opportunities to meet IT professionals. Roughly 95 percent of the people I meet are beset by career anxieties. A typical interaction with an IT professional is incomplete without one of the following issues cropping up–I want to switch tracks to e- Commerce/ERP/Internet development; I’m stuck with FoxPro while the market’s moved to VB; should I go in for professional certification; what do you think is the future for network/database administrators, etc.

Such concerns are not limited to fresh entrants. People with over a decade in the industry are suddenly adrift. Profiles like the following are far from uncommon.

Paul is a veteran IT person. He joined a large manufacturing unit after completing a diploma in Systems and was set to work developing inventory management software in FoxPro. His boss was nice and encouraged him to learn. Paul graduated to network-based applications development. Then his boss changed and the new manager talks about switching to client-server with Oracle. Paul’s exposure to these is limited–he had attended a two-month RDBMS course a couple of years ago. The new manager is critical of his skills. Paul draws a decent salary and is otherwise totally occupied maintaining the applications developed by him. He’s terribly confused about his future because he feels that his hard-won skills in FoxPro and Novell are not exactly in demand. Two young children add to the anxiety.

Satish managed to get one of the best placements from his class in a private computer institute. He was absorbed by the newly-incorporated Indian subsidiary of a large MNC. The organization was setting up systems from scratch and Satish was involved in coordination between end-user departments and consultants developing the software. Hardware had to be bought, networks set up and the software implemented. The salary and work conditions were excellent and he was content. Systems are now stable, and Satish has little work on a day-to-day basis. There are emergencies when he’s
indispensable, but these are now fewer and far between. Satish is now worried about the future. He knows a lot about setting up systems but isn’t sure as to how to market his skills. His resume contains no buzzwords. Job consultants are not very encouraging as he lacks the formal education to climb upwards.

Vimla works for a local Ayurvedic medicine manufacturer. She looks after the financial accounting, inventory and dispatch software. Many of the programs were developed by her and she has three data entry people reporting to her. The current recession has landed the company in tough times and there’s been no increment this year. She also knows that her employers would like to hire a cheaper
replacement. She’s been in the market for over six months, but with no success. What really has her worried is that her younger brother, who completed a VB course just a couple of months ago, has been placed at nearly twice her current salary. She finds it difficult to comprehend that her years of experience are worth less than elementary knowledge of a new environment.

All these profiles are of people who’re adrift in their current job. People doing well in their current jobs face a somewhat different problem–the Glass Ceiling.

The glass ceiling
The glass ceiling is the upper limit to your growth in an organization. It’s a barrier that’s invisible till you hit it. More and more IT professionals are now hitting the glass ceiling where there seems to be restricted scope of growth, either in their current, or other, organizations. The fact that it’s happening after years of heady growth worsens the blow. 

Why does the glass ceiling exist ? The answer is simple, and rests on a single axiom which is true of any organization. After a point, success in an organization depends on how much value you add to the fundamental business of the organization. Take the case of a car manufacturer. The fundamental business of the company is to manufacture and sell cars. The organization prospers if it grows by selling an increasing number of units every year. It may also grow by selling products and services associated with cars. Your future growth in the organization depends on how much your activities help the core business. At some point or the other, you have to be contributing to the enterprise in a fundamental manner.

Doesn’t IT contribute to the fundamental business of the company ? In theory it should. In practice, however, the jury is divided on the issue. What makes matters worse is that IT is a young industry and there are no established norms as yet. IT is a service function, and should be treated at par with other service departments such as accounts or finance. But the contrast with other service functions is dramatic. People in accounts or finance have a far slower start but can expect to rise very high at the end of their career. Most corporates have finance directors on their board but virtually none have IT directors.

It’ll take some time before these issues are sorted out. Educational standards will pay a key role in the process. Till that time, the glass ceiling will exist. If you want to advance to the top, join an IT company where your skills are aligned to the core business of the organization.

The burden of learning
I estimate that the life of half your knowledge in the IT industry is about three years. That is, about half of what you know is obsolete in three years. 75 percent of your skills are depleted in six years. So it’s obvious that learning needs to be a continuous process. However, there are two problems in doing so. First, it’s very difficult for employers to understand how fast employee skills depreciate in the industry. The average corporate thinks in terms of 40-50 hours of training per year. This figure is far from adequate in a knowledge-intensive industry like IT. The second problem is that most IT professionals are poorly educated to begin with.

There’s widespread ignorance regarding the essential nature of computer education. At one level, IT professionals need to be trained in the fundamentals of computing, covering topics such as programming concepts, data structures, operating systems, RDBMS and networking. At another level, they need to be trained to use products and tools such as Visual Basic or Oracle. Unfortunately, the second level takes precedence and most people now regard Visual Basic or Oracle as academic disciplines. Visual Basic or Oracle are commercial products and should be treated as such. Coupled with this is the fact that there are no barriers to entry. Thus, you have people who’ve barely managed to clear schooling well on their way to designing mission-critical software.

There’s already a crisis underway and it can only worsen. My guess is that more than half the people who joined the industry before 1995 are struggling to come to terms with GUIs, client-server models, and the Internet. People joining the industry today will be in a similar situation five years down the line.

The mantra for success
Is there any way out? Or rather, is there any simple way out? I don’t think so. You’ll be lucky if you manage to escape turbulence in the future. But remember that your career growth depends on adding value to the operations of your employer, and not riding on the latest wave.
The bottom line Not all IT careers will bloom in the new millennium. So, count your blessings.

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