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Careers in Technology
by Robert Hillard

Is there a future for careers in Information Technology?  Globally, professional societies such as the British Computer Society and the Australian Computer Society have long argued that practitioners need to be professionals.  However, there is a counter-argument that technology is an enabler for all professions and is more generally a capability of many rather than a profession of the few.

At the same time, many parents, secondary school teachers and even tertiary educators have warned students that a Technology career is highly risky with many traditional roles being moved to lower cost countries such as India, China and The Philippines.  Seeing headlines in the newspapers in recent years headlining controversy over the use imported works in local Technology roles has only served to further unsettle potential graduates.

Technologists as agents of change

Organisations increasingly realise that if they don’t encourage those who have information and insight about the future of technology in their business, they be creating a lumbering hierarchy that is incapable of change.

How should companies seek out those innovations that will enable the future business models that haven’t been invented yet?  Will current technology savings cause “pollution” that will saddle future business initiatives with impossible complexity?  Is the current portfolio of projects simply keeping the lights on or is it preparing for real change?  Does the organisation have a group of professionals driving change in their business in the years to come or do they have a group of technicians who are responding without understanding why?

These questions deeply trouble many businesses and are leading to a greater focus on having a group of dedicated technology professionals at every level of the organisation and often dispersed through the lines of business.

The recognition of the need for these change agents should answer the question on the future of the profession.  At a time when business needs innovation which can only achieved through technology, society is increasingly worried about a future where their every interaction might be tracked.

While the Information Technology profession has long talked about the ethics of information and privacy, it is only recently that society is starting to care.  With the publicity around the activities of government and big business starting to cause wide concern, it is likely that the next decade will see a push towards greater ownership of data by the customer, more sophisticated privacy and what is being dubbed “forget me” legislation where companies need to demonstrate they can completely purge all record of an individual.

While every business will have access to advice at senior levels, it is those who embed Information Technology professionals at every level through their organisation that will have the ability to think ahead to the consequences of each decision.

A professional’s perspective

These decisions often form branches in the road.  While requirements can often be met in different, but apparently similar paths, the difference between the fastest route and the slowest is sometimes measured in orders of magnitude.  Sometimes these decisions turn out to be difference between success and failure.  A seemingly innocuous choice to pick a particular building block, external interface or language can either be lauded or regretted many years later.

Ours is a career that has invited many to join from outside and the possibilities that the digital and information economy create had enticed many who have tinkered to make Information Technology their core focus.  While this is a good thing, it is critical that those relying on technology skills can have confidence in the decisions that are being made both now and in the future.

Practitioners who have developed their knowledge in an ad-hoc way, without the benefit of testing their wider coverage of the discipline, are at risk of making decisions that meet immediate requirements but which cut-off options for the future or leave the organisation open to structural issues which only become apparent in decades to come.  In short, these people are often good builders but poor architects.

But is there a future at all?

Casual observers of the industry can be forgiven for thinking that the constant change in technology means that skills of future practitioners will be so different to those of today as to make any professional training irrelevant.  Anyone who holds this view would be well served by reading relevant Technology articles from previous eras such as the 1980s when there was a popular perception that so-called “fourth generation languages” would mean the end of computer programming.

While the technical languages of choice today are different to those of the 1970s, 80s and subsequent decades, the fundamental skills are the same.  What’s more, anyone who has developed professional (as opposed to purely technical) skills as a developer using any language can rapidly transition to any new language as it becomes popular.  True Technology professionals are savvy to the future using the past as their guide and make good architecture their goal.

The way forward

Certainly the teaching and foundations of Technology need to change.  There has been much too much focus on current technical skills.  The successful Technologist has a feel for the trends based on history and is able to pick-up any specific skill as needed through their career.

Senior executives, regardless of their role, express frustration about the cost and complexity of doing even seemingly simple things such as preparing a marketing campaign, adding a self-service capability or combining two services into one.  No matter which way you look at it, it costs more to add or change even simple things in organisations due to the increasing complexity that a generation of projects have left behind as their legacy (see Value of decommissioning legacy systems).

It should come as no surprise that innovation seems to come from Greenfield start-ups, many of which have been funded by established companies whose own legacy stymies experimentation and agility.

This need to start again is neither productive nor sustainable.  Once a business accepts the assertion that complexity caused by the legacy of previous projects is the enemy of agility, then they need to ask whether their Technology capabilities are adding to the complexity while solving immediate problems or if they are encouraging Technology professionals to create solutions that not only meet a need but also simplify the enterprise in preparation for an unknown tomorrow.

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