Lean, mean, results-driven teams – the changing face of IT

One thing’s certain. IT departments that suffered through the last downturn have learned their lesson.

Today, they’re still lean and mean relative to their companies’ other departments. So if the ax falls, it’s more likely to land somewhere else.

Many lower-level jobs have been outsourced or offshored, leaving more highly skilled positions that are harder to fill. This is one of those rare instances where a recession could actually lead to greater job security.

“One lesson we hope companies have learned is that they just can’t cut head count as wildly as they have in the past,” says Imran Sayeed, senior vice-president of global industry solutions at Keane.

“If you do make cuts,” Sayeed adds, “you need to be smart about it. You might not increase head count for pure Java development because you have better options. But thought leaders who understand their business and end-user requirements can’t cut 15 percent across every department in IT anymore.”

With today’s shortage of tech talent, head-count reduction should be the furthest thing from a CIO’s mind, says Rob McGovern, CEO of Jobfox.

“If you went down to your HR department today and said, ‘We’re contemplating letting one-third of our software developers go,’ they’d say, ‘Are you serious? It took us the last two years to get up to full staff,'” McGovern says.

“Long-term demographics suggest an incredibly tight hiring market. There are 77 million boomers about to retire, and 48 million Gen Xers coming right after them. There’s going to be a big shortage. I’d think twice about letting people go, because it’s going to be hard to replace them.”

In Canada the market the IT skills crunch is arguably even greater than south of the border even as Canada’s IT job market posted record growth in 2007.  

Demand for IT professionals rose by at least 18 per cent in 2007 over the previous year, and the rise is showing no signs of abating, according to Sapphire Technologies Canada Ltd., a Toronto-based IT staffing company.

The demand was spread across contract and full-time positions, which were up 16 per cent and 21 per cent respectively.
The firm received more requests to fill in IT roles last year than it has at any other time in its 26-year history, said Terry Power, president of Sapphire.

The IT sector, he noted, plays a critical role in the Canadian economy. “So demand for IT professionals remains strong here despite what we are hearing about the market south of the border.”
U.S. market watchers offer a noticeably different perspective on the issue of IT staffing.

American enterprises looking to control costs are more likely to look offshore than to new hires, Keane’s Sayeed says.

He says many U.S.-based companies have barely scratched the surface of offshoring, especially when it comes to more advanced tasks such as application development and business process optimization. According to Compass Intelligence, budgets for outsourcing will grow nearly 10 percent in 2008.

But at the same time, organizations will be taking a much harder look at their outsourcing agreements and putting the squeeze on vendors, says Barry Jaruzelski, vice-president at Booz & Company.

“There was a big wave of outsourcing five years ago, but now enterprises are going back and re-evaluating their contracts, seeing how hard they can squeeze their vendors,” Jaruzelski says. “There’s a lot more aggressiveness about the prices they got, the terms they agreed to, and the vendors they chose.”

A survey of the current IT landscape, however, suggests tech departments are well prepared to weather whatever comes their way in the next year, and that IT — thanks to lessons learned from the last downturn — is much more resistant to economic uncertainty than it once was.

Much has changed since the dot-com implosion and subsequent recession of 2001 and 2002, when the tech sector took a huge hit and many IT jobs were cut. Today, tech companies are faring better than the economy as a whole, with eight of the top 20 tech vendors exceeding Wall Street estimates for the first quarter of this year.

In the U.S., corporate tech budgets will rise 2.3 percent this year, according to Gartner – a dip from the research firm’s earlier prediction of 3.3 percent, but still near the 2.8 percent growth IT has averaged since emerging from the doldrums in 2004.

The major shift for IT during the past few years has been a much sharper focus on cost containment and ROI, not to mention significantly leaner staffs.

Thanks to IT practices such as SaaS (software as a service), outsourcing, and virtualization, the cost of obtaining essential IT services is much lower than in years past.

Most important, technology is now viewed by virtually everyone on the C level as a key strategic component of business success. Enterprises that slash their tech budgets could end up cutting their own throats.

IT projects: Fast, cheap, and in control

IT is a much different animal than it was during the last downturn. The white elephant in the room — the big CRM or ERP project that was going to revolutionize the company and is now hopelessly late, over budget, and mired in political infighting — isn’t there anymore. Like Elvis, it left the building a long time ago.

In its place came smaller, nimbler, more focused projects that had to deliver on their investment or end up red-penciled.

So cost-conscious company controllers – looking to trim fat off the IT budget – may be forced to look elsewhere this time around.

“In the past, there was clearly a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality,” notes Guy Fardone, CTO of Evolve IP, a managed technology provider based in Philadelphia. “Everybody got caught up in that. That’s not happening now.”

At the same time, it’s also a lot cheaper to fulfill IT functions than it used to be. The rise of SaaS and the emergence of flexible licensing agreements have made it possible to get the same work done for far less money, adds Fardone.

“If your business is growing and you need Oracle financials, you don’t have to spend X dollars per CPU to get it,” he says. “You can buy it in a license agreement that didn’t exist five years ago. So you end up spending a few hundred thousand instead of a couple of million. I don’t think CIOs or CTOs have ever been in as good a position as they are now. There are so many ways to do the things you need to do without spending the kinds of dollars you had to in the past.”

Still, companies in cost-cutting mode will likely put off more ambitious IT projects for those that promise a faster return on investment, says Bob Riddell, senior director at Alvarez & Marsal Business Consulting.

“I think as the economy looks more frightening, we’ll see companies saying, ‘Let’s tighten up our business case, make sure the projects we’re doing have a measurable payback,'” Riddell says.

“For example, instead of putting in a wireless network because it makes employees more creative and productive, they may say, ‘Let’s invest in new servers because we know our costs will go down.’ That lends itself to smaller-scale, more modular projects.”

But the easiest way to trim costs isn’t necessarily the smartest, adds Riddell.
“Instead of slowing down the rollout of new projects, CIOs would do better to ask the businesspeople which projects have immediate business value, and then put all of their resources on the ones that will improve sales or cut costs,” Riddell says. “It’s better to leverage your IT spend[ing] rather than simply cut it.”

IT leads the way

Five years ago, IT was clamoring for a seat at the table next to the C-level execs. Now, without IT, there’d be no table to sit at.

“IT used to be seen as the geeky guys in the big room with the fans and blinking lights who treat us like idiots when we call and ask for help,” says Kris Domich, principal datacenter consultant at Dimension Data. “Now they’re the strategic enablers of the business.”

Over the past three years, Gartner surveyed 1,400 CIOs, asking them to rank their top 10 priorities for the year. Using IT innovations to create new products or services for their enterprises rose from 10th place in 2007 to third this year.

IT budgets for companies who said they’re focusing on generating revenue in 2008 see a bigger boost, too — up nearly 5 percent, compared to less than 2 percent for CIOs whose primary goal is to make their departments more efficient.
However, A&M’s Riddell cautions against companies who rush to sell internal services without careful planning.

“This is not something you want to do on short notice,” Riddell says. “Providing IT services to your business has inherently different skill sets, sales and customer service components, and metrics than selling excess capacity or consulting services to other businesses. That usually fails pretty miserably.”

Instead, successful CIOs see technology as so embedded in the business that it’s inherently a part of everything the organization does, he adds.

“I’m working with a client in the advertising and marketing business,” says Riddell. “IT is embedded in everything they do. It maintains information about their customers, transaction histories, and contract repositories. When executives there talk about what they need to do in case of a downturn, they realize that cutting IT by 10 percent is not a good idea. IT is the business.”

Instead of bracing for the downturn and merely hoping to ride it out, Riddel says CIOs should embrace it as an opportunity to show just what IT can do.

“There’s a great opportunity to step up and use the market downturn to change your relationship with your business peers,” he says. “In my personal experience, the times I felt my career surge forward was when there was a big ugly problem no one else wanted to deal with.

My advice to my CIO friends is don’t wait for the CFO to come knocking on your door asking for help. Walk in there today and give him your five best ideas for boosting the bottom line.”

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