While the technology industry still supports tons of people, spending and hiring trends don't look all that robust. In fact, there are lots of senior technology professionals still looking for work. What's going on? Is the demand for our services fading? Are we becoming obsolete? No, but there's a big change in the works. Put another way, in five years do you think you'll be doing what you do today? I recently asked 25 senior technology managers at a major public company this question -- and not one of them raised their hand.
The distinction I've raised before between operational and strategic technology is a good place to start planning how to reinvent yourself. Operational technology is what all of the "IT-is-a-commodity" crowd keeps talking about, you know, the argument that IT is no longer strategic. Strategic technology is where the action is -- and likely to stay. But what do these apparently divergent interpretations of the field tell us about career planning? Tom Peters suggests we think about "personal brands." Good advice, but what brands will sell?
I think there are three. And all of them focus on solutions -- not problems. Operationally, the brand that will sell is optimization. Technology professionals who can sell themselves as practical-yet-adaptive infrastructure jockeys will always have work. The necessary skills here include the ability to cost-effectively design and support hardware, software and communications architectures that directly enable business models and processes. Scalability, reliability, interoperability -- and all of the other "ilities" -- are assumed to be part of the skills repertoire that operational professionals will have. The language these professionals will use is not techno-speak: it's the language of business.
Make no mistake here. Many of the infrastructure skills that were highly regarded five years ago will not be held in the same esteem five years from now. Lots of infrastructure technology has already been commoditized and outsourced; more will follow. Infrastructure optimization will be about creative commodity management and bullet-proof performance.
If you're not happy with the infrastructure brand, how about branding yourself around strategic technology? If your have wide and deep business knowledge, understand how you -- and your competition -- makes money, and understand the range of back-office, front-office and Internet applications through which all the customers, transactions and money passes, then you can become a business technology strategist. But earning one's stripes here requires creativity about how existing and emerging applications can increase market share and profitability. Like the operational brand, the strategic brand is primarily about business, not technology. Business technology strategists sound (and dress) more like consultants than technologists; brand success here requires a lot of finesse.
The third brand that I think will play well in the early 21st century is business technology management guru. Given what we spend on business technology, keeping the books will become more and more important. But the big brand will be about return-on-investments, vendor management, program management and performance metrics, among other skills that help companies acquire, deploy, manage and measure business technology investments. Knowing when and how to outsource, how to craft a partner agreement, and track the impact of investments on profitability and growth will be the kinds of activities that will define your 21st century management brand.
These three brands suggest how you might think about your next move, how to re-invent yourself. How will colleagues describe your special value to the company in five years? What kinds of skills do you think will sell? Which ones are likely to be de-valued? Here are some thoughts. Programmers should move from coding to integrating to architecting; data base administrators should move from data base management to warehousing to mining; back office/front office applications specialists should move from ERP to extensible transaction processing to scenarios that define future business models and processes; and managers should move from asset management and total cost-of-ownership to portfolio management and strategic ROI.
Finally, all of the brands require some business success staples, like the ability to effectively communicate complicated ideas, to compromise, negotiate and prioritize -- and, hopefully, your personality doesn't need a major overhaul (since all three brands require some degree of savoir faire).
So which brand do you like?
Can you get there from here?
Steve Andriole is the Thomas G. Labrecque Professor of Business at Villanova University where he conducts applied research in business/technology convergence. He is also the founder and CTO of TechVestCo, a new-economy consortium that focuses on optimizing investments in information technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.