In today's cutthroat, highly-competitive IT job market, there simply aren't many guaranteed jobs. The IT job environment of the late 1990's, when we constantly heard about the shortage of technology workers to fill available jobs, is gone and it's unlikely that it will return in our lifetime – at least for those of us in the United States. As a result, we have to reset our thinking for the IT environment we're now in. Unlike the late 1990's, this environment does not promise a handful of job opportunities waiting in the wings if your current job doesn't work out, so you need to take what I like to call a "hybrid" approach to your IT career.
Then and now
Most of us can remember when we used to typically flip through the classifieds in the newspaper to find a job, send out a bunch of resumes in the mail and then wait for return calls. In those days (just a little over a decade ago), you were really somebody if you had a personal fax machine that you could use to fax your resume to potential employers. Move forward to the mid 1990's and with the popularity of the Internet you could respond to a job listing via e-mail and attach your resume. Then, bam! You could get a call back within 24 hours and could have your first interview over the phone. But fast forward to today. Now, if you're an IT pro, your resume can be one of 1,000 received in a single day, all vying for the same position. And many times, your resume is going into an endless abyss of unsorted e-mails in a recruiter's inbox.
To add to this dilemma is the ongoing issue of outsourcing. Redmond Magazine's 2005 Salary Survey reported that 25% of respondents who got laid off believe that their job was outsourced. Outsourcing has fueled a plethora of debates – many of the same debates raised by NAFTA and other globalization issues. No matter where you stand on those issues, the bottom line is that the United States is not an island. Being part of a global economy comes with the many opportunities, but it also brings plenty of challenges. The prevalence of outsourcing jobs overseas is one of the challenges, and it currently affects IT at a disproportion level to many other industries.
As an IT professional, you must adapt to this change or you will become obsolete. This is a new era and we have to change to meet its requirements. Sure, we all loved the good times in the late 1990's and it is natural to miss that kind of job security. But that was an anomaly and we've got to let it go, and accept that the future of IT includes outsourcing.
Now what are you going to do about it?
One of the most helpful business books that I have read in recent years was Who Moved My Cheese? by Spenser Johnson. One of the central themes of that book is that you can count on the fact that many things in your life will change. That's not what will determine your destiny. It is up to you whether or not you will grow and adapt to the changes that come. The cheese in the title of the book symbolizes your achievements in life and your peace of mind. You can choose to be a person who is flexible and prepared to deal with change and growth, or you can be rigid and waste your energy resisting changes that are inevitable. That's your choice.
Outsourcing has moved the "cheese" of the IT industry in America today. Many members of the IT community in the U.S. quickly took a negative attitude towards outsourcing, because it cost so many entry-level jobs, and many have not been willing to change or adapt to its effects on the economy.
Instead of making significant changes to better themselves, many have chosen to blame others and point fingers at the lower wages in India and continued downsizing of IT jobs in America. But it is not India causing the problem (nor any other country for that matter). Business decisions made by corporations in the United States support this trend. These companies are looking for the most cost efficient ways to do business, and to be honest who can blame them? We all do the same thing on a smaller scale when we choose to make our purchases from a particular IT vendor or retailer who offers them cheapest – we usually don't know or care where the equipment is manufactured. Some people make the argument that outsourcing will lead to poorer quality work. If that's the case and it hurts their products, then you can bet American businesses will eventually figure it out and move the jobs somewhere else or return them to the United States, as a few U.S. corporations have already done.
Interestingly, though, we are beginning to see that the outsourcing of jobs to India was just a starting point. Now that IT workers in India are getting more established, there has been a 15-18 percent jump in the salary of the average IT employee in India. I even heard in recent news that the Indian employers are organizing against employees to keep costs down, and that some Indian software companies have even chosen to outsource their jobs to China. They are doing this because it is one of the strings they can pull in a global economy.
The question for us is how can we adapt as IT professionals in this global marketplace? In order to adapt to this moving cheese, you must become a hybrid IT employee in America. What exactly does that mean? Well, instead of having just one company-specific or position-specific set of skills in IT, you build several skill sets. I understand that it is impossible to know everything, but you could combine a few skill sets to make sure you're a more rounded IT employee in the event you are downsized. For example, you may be a programmer but you also understand SQL Server. You could broaden your skill set to be both a programmer and a SQL Server DBA by doing some self-studying, talking to DBA colleagues, attending conferences, and using training money/tuition reimbursement that your current company offers you. Now, if your programming job ever gets downsized, you could have two potential career tracks to pursue, or your hybrid knowledge may be of use to companies who specifically need programmers that understand databases.
Another good hybrid would be IT support and technical writing. Support pros usually need to have good communication skills and so they can often do technical writing without much trouble. A simple technical class and/or some freelance writing work could help them develop those skills. Then, if the support job was downsized, you could fall back on writing technical documents. There are lots of IT companies that hire teams of technical writers to pen documentation and white papers for their products. My point is that your potential hybrid opportunities are endless. If you prepare now, then you won't ever put yourself in a position where you have to give up on the IT industry, especially if you love technology. IT is still a great field to be in, as it continues to revolutionize the way human beings work and play.
I will even go out on a limb and make a bold prediction: in the next 10 years, this will all begin to come full circle. At some point, the professional and financial benefits of doing business in different locations will even out. There will not be any obvious place to outsource jobs because we will be operating on more even footing. Today it is India, next year China or Costa Rica. But all of these countries will eventually face the same economic realities until it is no longer so clearly cost effective or professionally beneficial for companies to move large blocks of jobs to a single market.
In the meantime, make the decision to hybrid yourself and become a more versatile IT professional. Combine your current IT skill set with at least one other skill set, so that you can better prepare yourself for change if you are laid off or downsized, whether because of outsourcing or other factors.
The outsourcing debate will continue, but I would like to hear many more of my IT pro colleagues debating how we can best position ourselves in this new environment, instead of complaining about the fact that the rock-solid job security we once enjoyed is long gone.