Boom and bust blues

There's supposed to be plenty of good news to go around in the '2003 IT Workforce Survey' released recently. Trouble is, the survey doesn't show what lies just beneath that feeble good news: Corporate IT morale is in the toilet.

          There's supposed to be plenty of good news to go around in the "2003 IT Workforce Survey" released recently by the Information Technology Association of America.

          If you're a CIO or corporate IT manager, the good news is that IT labour costs are stabilising and IT shops are mostly able to hire the people they need.

          For IT workers in the trenches, the good news is that layoffs are slowing, actual pay cuts are largely a thing of the past, and only 4% of corporate IT departments are considering moving jobs offshore in the next year.

          Yeah -- that's what qualifies as good news these days.

          Trouble is, the survey doesn't show what lies just beneath that feeble good news: Corporate IT morale is in the toilet. And the number one reason is the one thing you can't do much about: the long, long hours.

          You can't do much about the hours your people work because the work has to get done and there's no budget for hiring more people to do it. So more and more of our best people are coming to the conclusion that there's a better life to be had than grinding away in an IT shop.

          And who will you lose at the first opportunity? Your smartest, sharpest people, that's who. Your IT shop leaders. The ones who best understand the connection between IT and business. The ones you'll need the most, once you get the green light to start building new projects again.

          They're the ones who don't have to stay -- who can take their corporate IT experience and parlay it into a new career, whether that means conventional IT consulting or a new specialist gig combining law and IT, medicine and IT or some other profession and IT.

          And why should they stay? They're smart enough to understand that this crunch isn't a one-time thing. We've been through it before. First there's an IT skills shortage: IT shops go crazy looking for ways to fill critical jobs, and IT becomes the hot place to work. Then a few years later the business tightens up, layoffs mount, salaries fall, hours get long and college students switch their majors to anything but computer science.

          Which, a few years later, results in another shortage -- and the cycle begins again. No wonder your best people want to leave. They love their work, but what sane person would want to build a career on that sort of manic-depressive boom-and-bust cycle?

          Can you keep them? Maybe. Your best shot to do that may be to get your IT shop out of the boom-and-bust business. You can't stop economic cycles or change the laws of supply and demand. But you can change the way you organise your shop.

          You've heard about cross-functional teams for years. Build a few. Bulldoze some of the walls between different IT functions. You've got programmers and database analysts and network administrators and help desk specialists. Start cross-training. Your programmers don't have to become database experts or network gurus, but the more they know about those other jobs, the better they can create systems that save grief for the whole business.

          Afraid they'll take the training and run off to a better job? They won't if you invest in educating them for what your organisation needs. Forget generic IT training -- put them to work studying your company's business processes, learning techniques to pry requirements out of your users and understanding the realities of your corporate culture.

          That will make them much more valuable to you -- but not especially more attractive to another employer who's just looking for someone fresh out of XML class.

          You'll get better, smarter work. You'll get more flexibility and efficiency in your IT shop, and greater focus on real business value.

          You may even find that your cross-functional IT people don't have to put in such long hours to get the work done.

          And for your employees, that would be really good news.

          Hayes, Computerworld US' senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years.

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