Opinion by Paul Glen

Paul Glen: The most important career question you've never even considered

As a reflective practitioner of the technical arts, you've likely pondered a lot of questions about the career you want to pursue, including these: What technical discipline should I focus on? Which degrees or certifications should I get? Should I stay technical or become a manager?

But here's one question so fundamental that it rarely gets asked: Do I want to be an asset or a liability?

You're probably wondering whether you should take me seriously. No one wants to be a liability, right? But I see this as one of the most important career questions you can consider. Let me explain.

Over the course of the past couple of years, while working on a book for early-to-mid-career IT professionals, I've had a lot of opportunities to think about the future of organizations, what's in store for enterprise IT groups, and how the lives of the technical people who will populate those IT groups are going to change.

One thing that seems clear is that over the past 30 years, a radical transformation of labor markets has taken place around the world. Some observers are predicting that by 2020, just six years from now, half the people in the U.S. workforce will be contractors -- temporary workers outside of the traditional definition of "employee."

Economists, sociologists and management theorists will likely argue for 100 years over the "true" reasons for this fundamental overhaul. Personally, I have a relatively simple take: Organizations, and their leaders, have been forced by a historic confluence of economic, technological, financial, legal, managerial and cultural forces to take a definitive position on a very basic question: "Are employees assets or liabilities?" Their answer ultimately determines whether an organization enters into long-term, mutually committed relationships with the people who work for it, or instead negotiates contracts with suppliers of labor. Organizations that focus on engaging long-term employees have decided that the asset nature of people outweighs the liability of the obligations that come with the relationship. Those that emphasize service transactions have determined that the cost of the liability exceeds the value of the asset.

In an economy that's headed toward an even division between those two modes, you are left with this choice: asset or liability? Admittedly, you aren't going to think of it that way. Here's another way to phrase the question: Do you want to be a hot commodity or a treasured stalwart? Either way, the decisions that employers make about their workforces will determine how they see you and ultimately how you see yourself.

I'm not discussing the ethics of all this, which are ambiguous at best. (I've written columns on both the positives and the negatives for individuals.) As I said, external forces have contributed. In the end, some organizations will invest in human assets, nurturing them as a way to increase returns, and some will enter into agreements for services because they see a better return that way. Both are valid exchanges of effort for remuneration.

The question for you personally is what type of relationship do you want to be in?

There's no right answer. Both have costs and benefits. But your choice will to a large degree dictate the answers to all those other critical questions that get so much more attention.

Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook: Essential Leadership Insight for People with Technical Backgrounds and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking You can contact him at info@leadinggeeks.com.

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