How to Stop the Dilbertization of IT

How to make enterprise IT fun again? How to turn back declining student enrollments and the commoditization of technical skills, and lure the best recruits again? You'd be surprised how many are glad you asked.

Talk to someone who has worked in IT for decades and more often than not, theyll regale you with stories of the "good old days," when the workplace was lively and creative juices flowed.

Nowadays its a different story, they usually say, and place their blame along any number of lines: outsourcing, offshoring, cost-cutting, IT commoditization, reactivity where there was once proactivity, not to mention the shoddy desks in their office in dusty room at the end of the hall.

In the simplest terms: too many IT workplaces have become Dilbert-ized—micromanaged, bureaucratic and stifled creatively. Its become an environment where busy work is praised and morale is low.

IT isnt fun anymore, and while a lack of fun at work may not seem worth stopping the presses over, the long-term effects of depriving a field of appealing work may very likely look like this: Students are turning away from computer science at an alarming rate. Theres a huge talent shortage across the entire field, and, in confidence, enterprise IT workers say theyd probably choose a different career path if they could go back and start over again.

"When I first got involved in IT, it was fun. It was a cool job; you were a hero because you helped people do things," Bruce Skaistis, founder of eGlobal CIO, a consulting firm, told eWEEK. "Now I go in to organizations and it has become drudgery. They seem beat-down, in less nice facilities. If you want to attract better people back into IT you need to make it more fun again. You need to recognize it as a problem."

But how to go about bringing ITs appeal back? Answers come from surprising places. Recipient of the 2006 Turning award and IBM Fellow Emeriti Frances Allen said in a recent interview that the answer lies within the field.

"I believe that there was great excitement early on. You couldnt have had a more wonderful experience than I did at IBM in 1960. We worked through wonderful problems with wonderful people. There was always the sense that there was so much more to do, more than we ever had time for," said Allen.

"The excitement is not as much now, which is unfortunate, because weve really just gotten started."

eWEEK spoke to long-time IT professionals about ways they think the fun and excitement can be brought back to IT. Beyond blaming external factors, they speak of bringing focus back to what is already in-house: professionals eager to love their work again.

Go back to square one

Want to make the IT workplace more fun? Go back to where you are farming your future technology workforce, and start there, IT professionals said.

"When you think of the flow of students into the IT workplace, if theyre not excited about the work, they probably werent excited about it in school," Rich DeMillo, Dean of the Georgia Tech College of Computing and former chief technology officer of Hewlett-Packard, told eWEEK.

DeMillo argues that it is the CS departments that need to make a shift towards leading their graduates into better careers by focusing on the uses of technology and not just the lines of code behind it.

/zimages/3/28571.gifReport: Offshoring to have no sudden bad effects. Click here to read more.

"Wed seen very narrow computer science departments graduating students focused only on specific kinds of technologies, and frankly, it is the least exciting part of the field," said DeMillo.

"We tried to focus on what exciting things people do with technology and see if it changed the fields. People start to pour into programs when they think technology is being used for something relevant and fun to them."

Stop placing the blame elsewhere

Most agree that IT has become commoditized, and therefore easily outsourced. Nick Carr, in his equally lauded and condemned 2003 essay "Does IT Matter?", went as far as to argue that IT will soon become a utility service along the lines of electricity and water.

"IT is treated as a commodity in most companies. A lot of the background stuff—accounting, IT—have become commoditized and then outsourced. When companies have done this, theyve lost touch of the people resources. Their creativity and imagination isnt being tapped the way it was when they were first in IT," said Skaistis.

Next Page: Let IT be more than firefighters.