Adding Value in Today's IT Industry

In the IT industry, one must adapt or risk fading away. That's why it's important for IT professionals to find ways they can provide even more value to their employers. In this column, Scott Rosa explores some survival strategies.
Over the past several years the job losses in the technology sector have been staggering. Before the downturn in the economy, it appeared that those in the IT industry, especially developers and network analysts, were untouchable. IT workers had their pick of jobs, with companies clamoring for anyone with even limited experience and knowledge.

Those days seem like a distant memory, and I am afraid they may not be back. When the economy does turn, and it will, the jobs created therein may not be available to the many competent professionals that were part of the dot-com boom. Instead those jobs will be filled by IT professionals in countries like India and Russia.

The Gartner Group makes the assertion that "CIOs will initially consider outsourcing for: cost savings, access to specific skills and a general belief that internal staff cannot be trained quickly or effectively in new skills."

It is projected that the U.S. will lose up to a half-million computer-related jobs by 2015. This may sound bleak for those currently searching for a job or looking to move up the career ladder. But fear not, hope is not lost. Maybe it is not too late to go off and learn something else.

I know what you are thinking: "You are telling us to give up and become a lawyer, a doctor, a dog-catcher or some other profession." Not at all; what I am telling you to do is learn how to create value in a different way.

Those of you that worked for some of the now-defunct dot-coms should know exactly what I am talking about. During the late '90s, myriad dot-coms with "cool" technology failed miserably. It wasn't because their technology was bad. I am sure the code was well-designed, built with object-oriented design patterns and all other sorts of other fancy programming mumbo jumbo.

The problem was these sites did not provide a real value add to their customers. In this case, "build it and they will come" just plain didn't work. To understand your customer, whether they are within your company or external, you need to understand what they do so you can build what they need.

Now the pundits would say, "Great, I gain knowledge in other fields, now what?" There still won't be enough jobs created for the analyst roles to replace all of the jobs lost to overseas outsourcing. In addition, there will be many IT professionals who will not be able to find new jobs in this business liaison role, or may not want to.

Don't get me wrong, by no means am I saying every developer needs to transform into a business analyst or project manager. There still will be opportunities for those that set themselves above the rest of the pack.

There has been a plethora of articles published telling IT workers to retrain as business analysts or project managers. There are two inherent problems with the articles I have read. One, they do not offer some practical ways to transform your skills to fit into these roles. Two, they do not address what to do if you want to stay working and be successful as a developer or systems analyst. The remainder of this article will do just that.

Don't Get Left Out in the Cold

In the IT industry, one must adapt or risk fading away. It is a harsh reality, but one present in any capitalist economy. Why do we think our industry is different than the steel or textile industries, which have seen the majority of production move overseas? Guess what, the rest of the world is catching up with technology. A greater percentage of it is becoming commodity-based. The question then is, what should you do so you are not left out in the cold? As I see it, there are two options.

The first is to upgrade your technical skills to the highest level possible. Become and expert in your area. To be just a semi-knowledgeable Web developer or network analyst will not be enough anymore. Not when a company can procure the same services overseas for as little as $20 an hour. If you don't have a master's degree in computer science, think about getting one.

Of course, this is a rather expensive option if you have to pay for it yourself. The other option is to get any certification you can procure in your field of interest. Certifications such as an MCSE also can be rather costly, but those currently out of work may qualify for grants.

For example, in the United States H-1B Grants are awarded to Workforce Investment Boards and to business partnerships to provide technical skills training to American workers so that firms can lessen their dependence on high-skilled foreign workers. Information on these grants is located here. By getting these certifications you are setting yourself apart from the middle of the pack. Those in the middle of the pack are the most in danger of being phased out by cheaper overseas labor.

In addition to furthering your education, join a professional organization. In fact, don't just join, get involved. This has two effects. One, you will be able to network with others in your field, which in turn may lead to opportunities down the road. I can't emphasize enough how important networking is in this climate. It is like the old catch-phrase says, "It's all about who you know." Getting involved in a professional organization will also show employers that you are really interested in, and committed to, your field of expertise. For example, the IEEE Computer Society is always looking for people to get involved. You can look for opportunities here.

The second option is to learn how to provide value to companies in a new way. Over the next several months/years, a greater number of companies are going to experiment with cheap, overseas hi-tech labor. And why not? Companies see massive potential cost savings. Besides the cost factor, developers from India and Russia have the same or better technical skills than some of their U.S. counterparts. If these workers provide equal value on the technical side, why would a company need locally based workers that cost two to three times as much?

The answer is knowledge of the business environment. How can you design a well-built manufacturing application if you do not understand a company's manufacturing process? How can you design an accounting application if you don't understand accounting?

You can provide an invaluable service to a company if you can bridge the gap between the technical architecture and the business need. Here is where other articles fall down. They never answer how you go about filling this role. Well, in many ways the answer is the same as the prior example -- education.

Keep in mind, education can take many forms. If you are specializing in designing applications in certain areas, learn more about those areas via trade magazines. Learn the lingo! If you work in IT for a single company, spend some time to understand every aspect of the company you can. You can do this by networking with people outside IT and by taking a tour of your company's facilities.

If you want to be even more aggressive, think about getting an MBA. I have recently completed an MBA program that mixed computer science with accounting, e-commerce and global strategy. I chose to get an MBA over a master's in computer science because I wanted to have some of the same knowledge my customers do. This will allow me to be pro-active, rather than reactive, to their needs. That is the epitome of value-add.

In addition to reading and formal education, you may also look for shadowing opportunities within a company. Some companies have their developers spend several weeks shadowing or working within a department they will be developing an application for. This gives the developer an inner view of the current business processes, thus allowing them to make process automation as efficient as possible. If the company that you are working for has not tried this, suggest they do so on the next project.

The Line is A Little More Blurry

In the preceding paragraph I may have misled you a bit in defining options one and two as mutually exclusive. Let me clarify: The line between developer and business professional is a little more blurry. The solution for IT workers is not option one or option two, but a mix of both. It is true you need to keep a core focus in one area or another, but you should allocate time to expanding your horizons, in turn expanding your sphere of influence.

For those that want to stay technical, allocate 10% to 20% of your time to reading literature outside the IT world. For those looking to become business analysts or project leaders, do not lose total focus of your technical background. Stay up to date.


The state of the IT industry will continue to evolve of the next several years, with some greater clarity on the success or failure of the transference of IT jobs to overseas labor. I know many of the readers of this article will be hoping for the failure of this trend, but I would not bet on it. As the industry continues to evolve, those of us in it must adapt and overcome challenges. The fact of the matter is there is no status quo in any sector of IT.

Scott Rosa is an applications development manager for Analog Devices.

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