Attracting New Talent to IT

A career as an Information Technologist is not what it used to be.  It is actually better now in many ways.  The kind of career opportunities available today offer far more options to match personal interests with meaningful work for people with an aptitude for systems thinking.  Anyone who considers themselves to be an innovative problem solver, enjoys creating or customizing things people use, likes to interact with a broad spectrum of other people, and is energized by continually being intellectually challenged should at least consider one or more career paths available to Information Technologists.  The real essence of the career experience, and the impact of what someone can contribute as an Information Technologist, embodies much more than the stereotypical perceptions of the profession as something only well suited for “geeks“.

The IDG CIO Executive Council recently co-produced a video that does a nice job dispelling the geek stereotype in an effort to promote why young people should in fact consider a career in IT.  Michael Gabriel (CIO of HBO) took a lead role in producing the video which was created by HBO and parent Time Warner.  The quality of the video is outstanding and I began circulating it immediately after viewing it.  More people need to think of a career in IT the way they are portrayed in this video:  I.T. Is IT – The Real Deal on Information Technology Careers

There’s something else I find interesting.  People often refer to themselves as a lawyer, a physician, an engineer, etc.  Some Information Technologists refer to themselves as a consultant, a developer, etc.  All of this is perfectly fine.  But many Information Technologists think of who they are separate from what they do.  They may say, “I work in IT” (for example) rather than refer to themselves as a “technologist” or something similar.  Some of the most accomplished people I know that could be considered Information Technologists (which could be broadly interpreted) are also musicians, outdoor enthusiasts, educators, entrepreneurs, etc.  Think about it.  A career in IT doesn’t define who you are.  It’s a profession that allows you to pursue personal interests with the flexibility to engage in meaningful work based on your particular aptitude for (fill in the blank).  There are many possibilities.  In fact, new “IT” career paths that do not even exist today will continue to emerge over time.  But there seems to be a disconnect between how many young people seem to view IT careers, and the current reality let alone what might be possible in the future.  It’s going to get harder to attract new talent to IT if this doesn’t change.

I typically get invited back to my Alma Mater twice each year as a guest lecturer to talk to undergraduates enrolled in a (required) management information systems course at the College of Business Administration.  I had worked for the professor, a former CIO himself, years ago at the very beginning of my 20+ year career in IT.  It’s a pleasure to give back (in some small way) to both my mentor and the institution I graduated from by sharing some of what I’ve learned so far with these students.  They are engaged and always ask intelligent questions.  But very few express interest in pursuing an IT career.

The topics I cover as guest lecturer range from the implementation of ERP systems to starting technology based businesses.  Regardless of the particular subject being discussed, I always begin with the same three questions and use examples to clarify.  “How many of you are considering a career working within IT at a company?”  (Normally only two or three hands go up).  “How many of you are considering either starting or joining a supplier of IT products or services?” (Typically four or five hands go up).  “How many of you anticipate playing an important role during the implementation of a customer facing online service or internal information system?”  (It’s rare to get more than six people raising their hand).  The total number of students in these classes is approximately 30 people.  I’ve been doing this informal poll for at least 5 years and the results are very consistent.  Maybe I’m not asking the questions the right way, or giving good examples, but there doesn’t seem to be a very high level of interest in pursuing an IT career from this small sample of business students.

Those of us already enjoying the benefits and privileges of an IT career need to do more to attract new IT talent by promoting the real nature of the profession and the kind of work life experience it provides.  The prospect of working in an environment with foosball tables and bean bag chairs with the potential of getting rich off of stock options in this economy isn’t going to persuade most people.  These opportunities may still exist to some degree.  But characterizing IT careers in this way doesn’t portray the substantive nature of a career in IT any more accurately than the geek stereotype.   We need to get involved more in mentoring programs, degree program advisory boards at colleges and universities, and other forms of outreach in order to cultivate a more positive image of our profession.

We also need to do things to manifest the kind of IT careers described in the video in order to attract and then retain the “best and brightest” as well:

  • Time to Learn: Provide more time within regular work schedules to discover and then implement new ways to participate in professional development, skills training and knowledge sharing.
    • Professional Development:  Expand awareness of emerging trends and provide opportunities to participate in workshops, conferences and take part in productive collaboration designed to foster experimentation, shared learning and innovative application of technology.
    • Skills Training:  Provide opportunities to increase proficiency with the use of technology, administration of systems, and management of information for varying levels of application and experience (i.e. novice, experience, and expert).
    • Knowledge Sharing:  Encourage and facilitate cross functional exchange of ideas, experiences and consultative input across different departments within the organization – and outside it if appropriate.
  • Opportunity to Experiment:  Explore new ways of doing things with technology through pilot projects, as well as trial and error on a small scale, in order to test innovative ideas and gain insights that can be used to inform prospective implementation and support on a larger scale.  (Failed experiments on a small scale are OK as long as they are not repeated and lessons learned are applied).

Promoting career opportunities in IT is a good thing.  Providing time to learn and opportunity to experiment helps cultivate the kind of careers that will attract and retain the talent that’s needed.