Over the past several years there has been a tendency to look back at the late 1990s and early 2000s when IS/IT workers were in high demand — and getting paid really good money — and think of those times as "The good ol' days!" And there's no doubt that it was great to have the personal security to know that if your job didn't work out you could quickly have a lot of open positions to choose from, or that if you wanted to progress to something better you could usually find plenty of opportunities.
However, not everything was rosy back then. Although many companies were thrilled with the idea of the productivity gains and competitive advantages they could gain from information technology, there were lots of companies that resented the fact that they had to pay technology workers so well. That resentment led to a general attitude among some management teams that, because they were paying so much money for IS/IT workers, they felt like they "owned" them, and often put unconventional demands on them. Management would essentially expect the IS/IT workers to put in long hours and could call or page them at any time, day or night, even during vacation or PTO time. Of course, IS/IT workers could leave and find plenty of other work if they got totally fed up, but I think this attitude was so prevalent that there wasn't a whole lot of optimism about finding a job with better expectations and atmosphere. In short, a lot of IS/IT workers simply accepted these types of demands as part of the job if you wanted to work in IT.
With the dot com bust, the failure of many big software rollouts (ERP, CRM, and other big apps) and the overall economic downturn of 2001 and 2002, IS/IT departments got scaled back. In many cases, this led to additional pressure on the IS/IT pros that remained with the company as they were forced to manage similar workloads with smaller departments. Meanwhile, the resentment over paying high salaries for technology workers started to diminish because techies were no longer in such high demand and so many companies could get away with paying less and didn't need to entice workers with big bonuses and other expensive fringe benefits.
Over the past month, I have blogged about the fact that the demand for IS/IT workers is heating up again in both the U.S. and in Europe. This will lead to better job opportunities and more job security for techies, and the squeeze will naturally push salaries higher. But I have little doubt that this could lead to some employers once again resenting the money they have to pay IS/IT workers and subsequently going back to placing the same kinds of unconventional demands on them that we saw during the last boom years.
So how can IS/IT pros protect themselves against this? At least once a year, someone starts a thread in the TechRepublic forums about how IS/IT pros need to unionize to overcome this type of treatment (here is a link to the latest "Unionize IT!" thread). Those discussions always lead to contentious debates, and there is rarely ever any unanimity among the techies involved.
I don't think the answer requires anything as organized or extreme as unionization. I just think there needs to be an overall attitude adjustment for IS/IT workers. We just need to stop accepting the idea that working in IT means that you have to work crappy hours and be on-call at all times. And part of the responsibility for that has to come from within our own ranks — the IS/IT pros that move into management. The managers need to organize the IT department with the same kind of equity and expectations that managers in finance, HR, and other departments use. Clearly, IT will have some additional responsibilities and there will need to be a reasonable on-call schedule put in place in most cases — since IT is the trustee of the company's vital information flow — but IT needs to no longer be thought of as an entity that exists outside of normal and fair business practices.
IS/IT pros need to adopt this type of attitude adjustment before the next boom.
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Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.