Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Career options for ICT staff in Australia

This post is a response to the article below:

http://www.theage.com.au/it-pro/business-it/a-brilliant-career--but-not-in-ict-20121112-29866.html

The article is fine. However, I think one of the main reasons that ICT careers are not fully appealing is that people have seen that when the rubber hits the road, and ICT pro will NEVER get the big promotion into management over people from other tracks within an organisation. This post is based purely on personal opinions, and has not undergone any real fact-checking. In fact, as soon as I started thinking too hard, I started poking holes in my own arguments. But, rather than sink the entire thing, I've posted it for crumbs of insight and general discussion...

Only a few people make big bucks directly out of ICT: Apple, Facebook, Google, hardware vendors, maybe a few others. By this I mean people who's core business does not extend beyond ICT. People who aren't in business mainly as part of a value chain which leads to something else.

For example, stock-trading companies. This is ludicrously heavily automated, and involved a lot of IT. However, a software engineer is never going to grow up to run the business themselves. They know too much about systems engineering, and not enough about running the business. Other tracks, like sales, or project managers, or product developers know far more about what it takes to stick with the trends and grow the business of taking other people's money in return for a service. And it's those people who will always run the business.

Another example, airplane companies. These businesses require autopilots that work, their flight routes are automatically determined, checkin is self-serve. But the fundamental transaction -- ticket for money -- is defined, grown and managed outside the ICT branch. No ICT professional will ever know as much or be as trusted to make business decisions as someone who has come out of the business part of the business.

ICT is simply not at the big table in most companies. There might be a CIO or CTO who is responsible for things like enterprise architecture, or for negotiating large contracts for computing services. Frequently, said CIO or CTO will not have come from the systems engineering, software engineering or system administration areas. They will only really exist to solve a problem and efficiently manage what looks to most people like a big fat cost centre that everyone needs but nobody really wants to be friends with.

Same with lawyers.

There are big companies, full of lawyers and full of ICT people, going around plying their trade. Within those firms, ICT staff can develop into business managers. But they're still the minority. Most ICT staff are still fundamentally embedded people inside other people's businesses, and with that model, there is always an uphill battle to the next promotion when competing with others who are inherently more trusted by that business. Most people just don't want to deal with the boring details of a technical issue.

There is obviously a strong startup culture in ICT, especially in places like the US where it's practically the standard way of doing business. But not every country has a silicon valley, and even those that do, still have huge numbers of ICT staff embedded in other businesses, part of a branch which might be important but is never really part of the trunk. To break free of this, ICT entrepreneurs mainly find that they have to go it alone.

I think there are a few reasons for this:
  (1) ICT is both more expensive and more valuable than most businesses can easily plan for
  (2) ICT is both harder and more technical than most people can easily accommodate
  (3) It's really hard to balance technical and business priorities at the same time in the same head
  (4) There is such a major history of ICT project failures
  (5) Most business people would rather be managing and doing business than thinking technically, and they have all the money

Is it any surprise that most capable people, when considering a career, don't pick a highly technical and difficult profession, that is generally paid at best a solid middle-class income?

One figure quoted in the article claims that people don't choose ICT as a university course because they don't understand what an ICT career is, and think it's basically just programming. I think it's true that people think that, but I think that is in large part because of how dead boring most IT in Australia is. You get paid okay, which is a good start, but not so well that it seems glamorous or important. Nobody sees ICT as the fast track to a BMW and private school fees for the kids. Doctors and lawyers spring to mind as examples of people who make the big bucks for their primary activity. ICT staff who make big bucks do so by transitioning out of doing ICT work and making the leap into another profession: managing people and running a business.

Most ICT is dead boring. Relatively few people have the chance to work on something that is even visible to a person outside the company, let alone something important. Mostly you get treated like you're not really a part of the business, which you're not. Or like you can't be trusted with business decisions, which you often can't, because you're never given a playground to learn and make mistakes in. If you want rewarding work, you either have to excel at your job, or go out and find it, deliberately and painstakingly. That's what I did.

Which is all completely stupid.

Because most ICT problems are exactly the frickin same as everyone else's problems. ICT staff are, mainly, technically competent general problem-solvers. Sounds like the ideal manager to me. They can tell when something is worth doing and when it's not, because every day they get confronted with a general problem, loosely specified, expressing somebodies need, and get expected to turn that into something that people can use to Get Stuff Done. As an ICT worker, I have seen a wider range of business problems than most. I see financial issues, legal ones, systems issues, scientific problems and the list just goes on and on.

However, they tend not to be exposed to the same range of "people problems" (and ways of solving them), such as negotiating, making a business case, making a sale, designing a business proposal, working with clients etc as those who are in directly relevant roles. It makes some sense. ICT staff need a fair bit of time to complete their technical work. They need the space to think and plan. You can't get into the zone of technical work with less than 3-4 hours of known uninterrupted time. etc etc.

What we mainly have, as I hope I have just illustrated, is in fact an economic and career management issue. It has, in my opinion, almost nothing to do with whether enough capable people would enjoy the work. They can just see it's a bit of a dead end for someone with ambition.