IT job market filled with contradiction

What’s the state of IT work? Paradoxical.

Here, look: A survey released last week by ChangeWave Research says that 30 per cent of U.S. IT shops are spending less than they planned this quarter — and 29 per cent plan to keep cutting their IT budgets until next year. Only 13 per cent plan to increase spending.

Then why is it so hard to find IT people to hire these days?

And it is, according to reporter Todd Weiss (see “Wanted: Skilled Workers — But Only Those With the Right Skills Need Apply”).

Overall IT hiring in both large and SMB sector is at a standstill and IT salaries are flat, but companies looking for some specialized tech skills — wireless, ERP, virtualization, embedded, Web 2.0 — are having a tough time tracking down candidates at any price.

That’s not the only apparent contradiction in IT work these days. Here’s another: Even as budgets keep getting tighter, the focus of IT projects is no longer on cutting costs.

Why not? Probably because there’s not a lot left that can be trimmed easily. IT has been helping our companies cut for years. The quick-hit automation has already been done, and there’s no money in the budget right now for enterprise-scale projects. What’s left? IT projects that will actually help grow the business.

That sounds like another contradiction. How do you grow a business when the economy is tanking? By stealing sales and customers from your competitors, thus boosting your market share as you cut off the other guy’s oxygen when he can least afford it.

IT projects that help your salespeople do that will have a much bigger impact than yet another round of cost-cutting tweaks. Of course, those projects are harder to do. They require development teams who know the business and the competition as well as the technology, and who can listen closely to users and quickly crank out effective systems that produce a fast return on the project’s investment.

In short, now that cutting costs is off the table, IT people at big companies are having to act as if they’re at small, entrepreneurial start-ups. That’s right, it’s another contradiction.

Here’s one more: Which IT people have the greatest job security in this counterintuitive world? The ones working without a net on the riskiest projects that, if they pan out, will show the biggest, fastest results.

Confused? Don’t be. You know that, in every downturn, certain skill sets remain golden. This time around, there’s also a golden mind-set.

It’s not about big projects, long timelines, large teams and complex methodologies. It’s not about technical purity or perfection, kitchen-sink wish lists or complicated political dances.

It’s all about speed. And business focus. And technical sharpness. And intimate business knowledge. It’s about getting quick results from small investments, delivering effective tools to employees who can use them to change the game.

Most of all, it’s about grabbing hold of those paradoxes, understanding the realities behind them and then putting them to work.

That mind-set isn’t simple. And it likely won’t be comfortable for many people who have worked in big IT shops for their whole careers.

Which brings us to yet another paradox in the state of IT work right now: The people who have the strongest, clearest, most coherent sense of what an IT shop does are going to have the most trouble making sense of things.

And the IT people who have never quite fit in? Right now, they may just be exactly what your IT shop needs.

Frank Hayes is Computerworld’s senior news columnist. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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