Challenges Facing the Next Generation of IT Pros

Our industry, that being providing the IT infrastructures to enable business services and processes, is in a state of flux. Business leaders have been enchanted by the promise of cloud computing. It seems that traditional on-promise software vendors are also trying to push that agenda to achieve customer lock-in and guaranteed recurring income. That makes our careers as IT pros look pretty shaky, right? Maybe, maybe not. If you look around, just how many young IT pros do you see around you? A few things have made me wonder if there will be a next generation of IT pros.

Where Did All the IT Pros Go?

I started to notice an absence of moderately experienced IT pros when I was interviewing candidates just after the recent economic downturn started. At a time when there were few job opportunities, there were fewer acceptable candidates. In the last few weeks, some of my customers have contacted me to seek help looking for junior Windows engineers and mid-level System Center consultants. Both of those companies had exhausted all of the usual recruiting channels and this had resulted in nothing. And recently I heard a piece on the radio where various head hunters, employers, and industry associations were crying out for applicants.
I joined this industry in the mid-1990s when our business was booming and things were different. Things have changed; I think a few things have contributed to the shortage of skilled IT pro candidates.

empty IT office

Secondary Education Isn’t Keeping Up

I am not involved in the education field, but I pay attention to industry news and a few of colleagues are involved in third-level (college and university) education. My IT pro education was limited to learning the OSI model countless times, reading about Token Ring networking, and using the VI editor on UNIX. Honestly, it sounds like things haven’t changed much.
In the news I hear that despite how important IT has become to business over the past 25 years, colleges are still not producing IT-savvy graduates. News is one thing, but when my colleagues who work in education tell me that it’s rare that college students even hear about basic things like DNS, Active Directory, or virtualization, then I start to worry. How can a student learning IT never learn to install Windows? If you cannot do this basic task, then how can you expect to get your foot on the career ladder in the helpdesk?
While I haven’t been involved in education, I was approached about it a few years ago. A college asked if I would be interested in teaching a post-graduate masters class in cloud computing. Content would include “understanding virtualization” and other basics. It made me wonder what the students had been doing in the four years leading up to their graduation – are kids still learning how to type from Mavis Beacon?
I’ve also talked to graduates and what I hear worries me. Professors and lecturers teach what they know. These teachers either do limited-scope research or have never worked in the real world. Maybe the student is lucky and has teachers who are capable, but the college has not acquired the necessary equipment.
If colleges are not producing the graduates that businesses need, then something needs to change. I remember when Apple went on a hiring spree in Ireland. Labs full of Mac- and Apple-development classes appeared. Maybe those businesses that need skilled graduates need to get involved with the colleges in their area or that fit a certain profile. Old equipment can be donated. Internships can be offered. And maybe even experienced staff can be used to define new classes or even donate work hours to guest lecture.

Employers Looking for Instant IT Expertise

Do you remember attending a college to learn to become an IT pro? That wasn’t my path. I attended a college and studied something called “applied computing.” To sum it up, I studied some business classes and software engineering, all with the focus on becoming a developer in a commercial setting. I joined a large corporation as a developer, and nine months later I fell into being a junior Windows consultant because I had attended some Windows NT training. I don’t think this is an unusual story. Friends of mine started in economics, music, and the military. None of planned on being IT pros – it just happened.
I have interviewed lots of people over the years, and it seemed taking the scenic route into IT was not uncommon. But I don’t see it happening anymore. Something has changed. Employers are seeking candidates that are like instant coffee – just add hot water, and you have an experienced IT pro. But this just does not happen.
One of my favorite customers has a unique way of employing new junior staff. They seek out kids who are smart, but for whatever reason, have not been able to attend or complete college. The candidate is interviewed and offered a unique opportunity. They can come on board as interns and spend time shadowing more experienced staff. Time is set aside for training, and equipment and books are made available. Training targets are set and those interns are expected to pass a set of certification exams in conjunction with their hands-on experience. At the end of the internship, the candidate is offered a job if they have met all of their targets. This company is not some huge corporation; they’re actually a small family-owned business, but the point is that they get it. They understand that good employees don’t appear overnight like mushrooms; they’re cultivated like orchids. (By the way, that company has one of the best working environments I’ve witnessed.)

Lack of Investment in IT Training

Two years ago, one of my customers brought up an interesting theory: The move to the cloud is going to choke the supply of IT pros. This was based on the following.

  • Most IT pros start off in junior roles, either as field engineers or as local IT in the small-to-medium business sector.
  • Those companies are switching en masse to SaaS solutions such as Office 365.
  • There is little to no need for IT pros in this sector any more.
  • Larger businesses and consulting firms will suffer as this developmental area dries up.

I think he’s right to a certain extent. But there is more to the small/medium enterprise than Small Business Server. I think something bigger has happened. IT pros simply have not developed. I think that, like in any business, you’ll find a mix of people who punch clocks and don’t care about their jobs, people who maybe have a lower ceiling than others, and people who could be great. As a manager you never know what you have in your team until you try to develop them. That’s where I think our business has failed. Businesses don’t understand that there is more to IT than just turning up with a degree. Our industry is never the same from year to year. The technologies have expanded and become more complex and specialized. And you cannot keep up without training.
Training is seen as a cost by the business. Worse, training is seen as a risk by the business. I’ve asked around and some managers are worried that they’ll actually lose staff because they’ve trained them. And this leads me to …


No Appreciation for IT Staff

Is it any coincidence that you’ll usually find the IT department in the first place that will flood – that is, the basement? How respected do you feel as an IT pro when you’re called a “nerd” by your colleagues in accounting? How many board members have come out of the IT department? In fact, the CIO is probably a bean counter! So when a teenager sees the IT department as the corporate cellar, working overtime without additional remuneration or recognition, is it any wonder that they choose an alternative path as an ambulance-chasing lawyer or economy-breaking stock broker?
Maybe, just maybe, if management and boards recognized the importance and potential of their IT asset and appreciated how IT can help their business, then they wouldn’t have difficulties hiring or retaining IT staff? Perhaps that helpdesk agent who is sent on a training course would be given the opportunity to get a better role and a pay rise? Training shouldn’t be a risk – it should be the opportunity to develop a better company. You don’t lose staff because they were trained – you lose staff because you didn’t appreciate them.
In some ways it is depressing that there are so few IT pros entering our business. But every cloud has a silver lining, right? At least I’ll still be needed when I’m 70, and I won’t need to get a job as a greeter at the local supermarket.