Last week IT Business Edge contributor Don Tennant wrote a blog post in which he shared his concerns that the IT work force increasingly is viewed as a commodity, not only by executives who try to trim labor costs whenever and wherever they can, but by IT pros themselves. The problem, wrote Don, is that folks tend to think of "IT labor shortage" as being synonymous with "IT skills shortage" when the two aren't the same at all. He said:
The CEOs and CIOs I speak with almost never suggest that there is an IT labor shortage. They say that if there's a shortage, it's in the particular skills they're looking for. The legitimacy of that assessment is extremely difficult to prove or disclaim. IT skills requirements are so fluid that it would be nearly impossible to come up with an empirical study to answer the skills shortage question. Any such study would only be a snapshot in time, and would be of little true value.
Maybe IT employers are just too damned picky. I wrote about this two years ago, citing research from the Urban Institute's Hal Salzman, who contended that America's universities produce a more-than-adequate number of science, technology and engineering students to meet available job demand. The real reason the IT industry claims a labor shortage has more to do with unrealistic expectations than with a shortage of IT grads. A Salzman quote:
I once had a manager talking about difficulty in finding a Java programmer with ten years Java experience and who he wanted to come into a mid-level Java position. Java's been around for what, 12 years now? There are probably not a lot of these folks around who have that much experience and who are willing to work at that level.
Salzman's comment is echoed by an experience described by a reader named Joel Witherspoon, in a comment following Don's post:
Your remark "sometimes even requiring more years' experience than a tool has even been in existence!" strikes a chord. I remember a CIO in 2006 remarking that he would hire only individuals with five or more years of "cloud computing experience" even though the "cloud" idea was just taking shape at that time. He had a completely unrealistic expectation.
Last month I wrote about the idea of IT generalists vs. specialists, noting that the recent economic slump had employers looking to add high-impact skills at predictable costs, which generally meant they sought very specialized skill sets. In addition to hiring specialists, they could add them to their staffs by other means, including employing third-party contractors, going offshore or purchasing managed services.
Is something lacking in these teams of specialists? I think so. I shared a link to a CIO Essentials blog post written by Gene De Libero in which he described a discussion with his nephew, a software developer. The nephew told him he worked on a team in which no single developer knew the product stack from top to bottom. Instead, the team was staffed with specialists, each responsible for a specific job and sub-product. But "no one had a 35,000-foot view of the entire product line, from a code perspective," wrote De Libero.
The situation De Libero describes is an obvious problem. It makes it tougher to troubleshoot and to collaborate on fixes. Another reason to hire smart generalists is their ability to satisfy what Tennant calls "fluid" job requirements. Rapid changes in technology make it tough to staff up every time a new system or tool enters your company. Jim Haar, CIO of application-delivery-network infrastructure provider Blue Coat Systems, illustrates the importance of hiring generalists in a recent Forbes interview. Describing why he looks for versatility in potential hires, he said:
You know, we can do a really good job of writing what we think is a job description and performance criteria for a position we're looking to fill. And we're gonna go hire somebody who we think is gonna be the greatest fit for that job. Sixty days later that job's gonna be different. It never turns out to be how you've described it or what you thought it was gonna be. And so, I wanna know from people how they've demonstrated adaptability and flexibility in the past. Tell me a story about how you came into a situation and you thought it was A and it turned out to be X, and then what did you do differently to be successful?
The IT industry would surely benefit if more employers would take Haar's approach.