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Dual Roles: The Changing Face of IT

By Sharon Gaudin
July 26, 2005

A network engineer searches out business executives and questions them about processes and goals. In the evenings and on weekends, he reads business journals and researches trends.

This ten-year IT veteran knows that to remain valuable and to remain employed means understanding the business side of a company. Being skilled in IT alone is no longer enough.

''I spend a lot of time researching and talking with individuals to learn their part of their business,'' says Russ Schadd, a network engineer for a Chicago area consulting and contracting firm. ''The more educated I am, the less time is spent trying to establish a common ground for communication. That leads to a quicker resolution or implementation of what they want to get done, and that's basically why I'm here.''

Schadd is one of the smart ones, according to analysts at Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based industry analyst company.

A new report from Forrester says that while talk of IT's demise has been greatly exaggerated since the dot-com bubble burst about four years ago, the profile of the IT worker is changing. And it's changing quickly.

Laurie Orlov, a vice president and research director at Forrester, told Datamation.com that the IT profession basically has been having a crisis of confidence.

''Think of it as mid-life angst,'' says Orlov, referring to the financial and emotional turmoil that followed the collapse of the Internet boom of the late 1990s. ''It's somewhat ironic if you think about it, because it's right at the time that dependency on technology is increasing. But with a ton of publicity, outsourcing and cut backs in IT spending, all of that is at the other end of the pendulum from the enthusiasm we had in the late '90s. We had overhyped enthusiasm then and now we have overhyped fear.''

The IT industry isn't going down the drain, despite several years of layoffs and a growing trend to offshore high-tech jobs. What is happening, according to Orlov, is that the profile of the IT worker is changing.

Orlov says that because of outsourcing and offshoring, fewer and fewer companies are employing computer programmers and other low- to mid-level tech positions. The jobs that are surviving the outsourcing trend are senior-level positions, like project managers, vendor managers and CIOs. And those people increasingly need to understand the business, she adds. Senior-level managers not only need to understand the company's business goals, but they need to think like business executives and they need to have honed business skills.

What's making this a tricky business is that while they're becoming skilled business men and women, they also need to remain knowledgeable in the latest technologies. Basically, they need to be a master of two trades.

''I think this will be a gradual shift, focusing on the new entrants in the field,'' says Orlov. ''They need to understand the technology even though they're not going to be doing it... They need to be conversant with it so they can inspect the technologies being used [by outsourcers] and map them to your own architectural standards.''

Orlov says that in 2000 there was one white-collar job in IT for every blue-collar job. Forrester analysts are predicting that by 2010, that ratio will have shifted to three white-collar jobs to every one blue-collar job.

Scott Melland, president and CEO of New York-based Dice Inc., an online recruiting service for IT professionals, says he sees the industry moving in that direction. He's just not sure it's moving as fast as Forrester is predicting.

''When you think of a career track in computer science and technology, if you want to continue to move up in terms of income and responsibility, you have to move into a more managerial role,'' says Melland. ''The business skills and the business background will help you a lot... One of the big differences today, in terms of managing IT operations, is that the job is becoming much more one of managing inhouse and outsourced resources. The business and managerial skills are becoming much more important. You have to lead a team of in-house technologists, but you also have to manage vendor relationships and the outsourced vendor team.''

But while Melland says he sees the shift coming, he's just not convinced that the shift is coming on as fast as predicted.

Orlov, however, says the shift is in full swing. And IT workers looking to stay in the industry and looking to fill senior positions, better crack open a business book -- and soon.

''They do have a lot of work ahead of them, but there are still great opportunities in IT,'' she says. ''This is a tough job now. It's just a different job than it used to be.''