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.
“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.
Let IT Be More
Yet not as many people are speaking about how to fight this, to adapt to the market and bring value back to IT that simply cant be sent elsewhere when cost-saving impulses set in.
“To blame outsourcing, offshoring and the dot com bust is to miss the point,” DeMillo said. “If you know the value chain is changing, and you continue to teach people to do things that are quickly becoming commoditized, you are doing them a disservice. Its better to figure out where the value is being added for employers, and focus on this.”
When IT stops interacting with the rest of the company, stops exerting influence by no longer offering innovative technology solutions for business problems, it packages itself in an easily shipped box, IT professionals said.
“Outsourcing is a symptom, not the problem. Outsourcing has become such an important factor because when you turn IT into a commodity, it becomes about where you can get it at the lowest cost. Its what weve done to IT that is the problem, which is taking away its chance to influence business,” said Skaistis.
Let IT be more than firefighters
IT professionals that have worked in the field for a long time often speak about a shift in their work where they have gone from tossing ideas back and forth to make for better technology solutions to fighting fires all day.
“Theres less emphasis on creativity, and more on maintenance. Tweak this, work on this… In being reactive not proactive, everything is a crisis. Something has to be done right now, putting out fire after fire, going a long way to making IT a less pleasant environment,” said Skaistis.
Beyond making for a unpleasant work environment for the techies already in-house, this firefighting serves as a warning to potential recruits: you will not like this job.
“The best minds are not making it into the field. To some CIOs, it is a concern; to others it is not. Theyre losing out on the bright young people coming into the pipeline because people have an impression that if they work in IT, theyll just be fixing passwords all day,” said Skaistis.
IT needs to get back to showing people how work can be made better through technology, and how technology can be more effective, IT professionals said.
“IT is behind the wall, and business is outside the wall, and trying to exchange ideas across the wall is nearly impossible. Weve stopped asking what computers can do for us,” said Skaistis.
Better managers get better results
Skaistis argues that although establishing guidelines and defining expectations is straight out of Management 101, he has found that many enterprise IT professionals dont know what is expected of them. Often, they only find out after theyve missed a deadline or made a mistake.
“People perform best when they have a clear understanding of what is expected of them and how their performance will be measured,” Skaistis explains. “Many high performance organizations provide their team members with written expectations and accountabilities. It takes time to write and discuss expectations and accountabilities, but it is time well spent.”
Tom Harpointer, CEO of Atlanta-based Web development firm AIS Media, talks about bringing people back to IT by giving them more flexibility and freedom in their work.
“People want to work some place they can be creative, have opinions, where they can make their ideas work and where the rules arent so rigid and they wont be nailed to the wail every time there is a mistake. People will perform better if theyre given some flexibility, and the opportunity to make an impact,” said Harpointer.
An essential part of making people feel better about their work is to give continuous feedback, not just waiting until a scheduled salary or performance review.
“You have to make people feel good about what theyre doing. You dont feel good about going to the dark room at the end of the hall, chained to the help desk phone until the time you go home,” said Skaistis.
“We cant ignore the people issue. We really have to make IT a better place to work.”