Are IT Employers Too Picky?

Ann All

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
May 6, 2010 8:45 AM Al Gibson Al Gibson  says:

In my world, we have generalists with specific experience, and they tend to be the most productive and longest-lasting employees.  Those who cannot adapt to be generalists get frustrated and move along to the next employer for the usual 2 to 4 year stint.  Rinse and repeat.

HR departments in larger companies tend to want to pigeon-hole potential applicants when culling applicants before sending resumes to managers.  It just depends.  Many companies say they require a MIS, Math, or Comp Sci degree for a position, however if you have 8 years of Java programming experience but you have an English degree or are a dropout then the requirement is waived if you can demonstrate capability.  Particularly if you are 50 years old.  How relevant is a Comp Sci degree from 1982?  Somewhat, I suppose.  If you have stayed in the industry since graduation then it shows you are a generalist and adaptable.  Whereas you could be 22 years old, fresh out of college with Comp Sci degree, yet somehow you do not still understand something like source control.

I digress, but every manager and director I've been involved with over my career who vets new hires is looking for adaptable generalists with certain skills.  Never have I seen a situation where we need to hire somebody with 5-8 years experience and somebody with only 3 or 4 years is pushed aside.  It depends on how they carry themselves in the interview process. 

All I can say is don't hire a job hopper (that's obvious), don't be too quick to hire somebody who used to work on contract (unless they are clear about settling down), don't hire that fat guy who smells weird, and always hire the workaholic.

May 6, 2010 11:13 AM Elliot Ross Elliot Ross  says: in response to Al Gibson

Let me borrow something I wrote in 2008 on this exact tech issue:

    Its funny,

    You know, I never see an advertisement looking for automotive technicians with skills on next years model.

    I mean really, the guys fixing last years cars may as well be COBOL developers right??

    When the IT programming language or process of the year comes along, everybody will be advertising and looking for 10 years advanced experience with a 6 month old technology.

    Come on!!!-can the auto industry be so out of date? forget training those service techs!-just fire them all, and hire new ones! Surely there are already techs learning how to fix all next years cars right now!

    Oh yes, wait-there are-the Automotive industry is preparing for the training their techs need for the 2009 model year as we write these words.

    Maybe we are the ones truly out of date

(of course now it is the 2011 training that is happening, and the 2012 that is already in planning)

( the post was titled Skills Shortage? or Training?



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