Opinion: A scarcity of IT talent will force piracy

IT was it ten years ago. Now, for this generation, it's the same thing as selling shoes

Q: We are having a very tough time finding new IT talent from the traditional school programs, is there another place to look? -- P.R., Gary, Ind.

A: This could be the next really big issue to plague our IT worlds. There are more IT jobs open now than ever before - including during the crazy DotCom boom - and there are fewer IT/MIS grads leaving colleges than ever. You don't have to be a genius to figure out that this is a problem.

So the short answer is that the only place to look is next door. You are going to end up having to try to recruit from the company across town, offering bigger money, better benefits, and a parking spot for the Vespa. There simply isn't enough talent to go around, and the problem is only going to get worse.

Why are we in this position? In a nutshell, kids today view managing computer environments as boring and tactical. Schools haven't done a good job keeping the gig fresh, so since times have changed but the curriculums really haven't, kids are on to the next great thing.

It's funny that one of the greatest business challenges we've ever faced as a society -- managing and operating IT infrastructure -- is considered lame by the youth of the world. The fact that we spend so much time and money on this stuff isn't interesting; the fact that we haven't solved the problems as to just why we still have to spend so much time and money is interesting. Kids today are more interested in understanding the psychology of why we keep doing what we're doing, or the technology itself, and not in the day to day heartache that is IT.

The real problem is that while we continue to battle the same demons - managing our shops effectively in the face of never ending demand and less money - the kids have no appreciation of the issues because in their little IT domains their stuff works. My 14-year-old has 1,100 songs on her cell phone. My 12-year-old son uses the Internet as his communication bus. If his machine is screwed up, he uses another one.

What's the problem? Neither of my kids care at all about what processors they have in their iPods or phones or video game systems, how much memory it has, or how much capacity is out there. As far as they are concerned, infrastructure is a given, stuff just works, and when it doesn't, I still can do whatever I was doing by moving to another machine or gizmo. They don't have any basis for needing to know anything else. This generation is all about the application, and nothing about the infrastructure that supports it. To them, the screen they see and the keyboard they use is the only infrastructure that's relevant. Their application opens and they use it. They don't stop to think about how the data they are creating or manipulating is getting from their desk to wherever it lives, and why should they?

So, in a good news/bad news sort of way, I think it's good that technology has come so far that video games outsell major corporate IT applications. The bad news is those major corporate IT applications still need glue, Band Aids, prayer and spit to keep them going. They remain wholly dependent on the underlying infrastructure they live on, and they live and die by the changes that affect that infrastructure.

So we have a dilemma. We have not been able to "not care" about infrastructure in our corporate worlds like our kids have in their worlds. We still have huge dependencies on specific skill sets, in the same way that you can't just take your Ferrari to the local garage for a fix. The next generation is always more bored than the previous, and it is always looking to do more interesting things. IT was it ten years ago. Now it's the same thing as selling shoes to the kids.

A mainframe guy told me a great story at Storage Decisions last week. He told me of a young MIS graduate who got a job working with her dad at a big bank. Over the course of her first year on the job, dad taught her everything she never wanted to know about the mainframe. Now she's sitting pretty, and she can pretty much write her own ticket. In 5 to 10 years, she'll be CIO or more since everyone else will be dead.

So, there are only three logical outcomes that I can see. First, we can re-emphasize the educational "coolness" of the very real problems and challenges we continue to face and hope we can change the curve of bright young minds bailing out of IT. Second, we can face the fact that if we don't get more talent, we'll end up bailing and having to outsource. Finally, and this is crazy, we could start to put up a stink by not acting the same old way that got us into this problem to begin with. We could force industry to solve the problems, so that we don't have to care so much about the effect of infrastructure change. We could reward people who marginalize the negative impact of infrastructure instead of rewarding the same guys we've been buying from forever - who have no incentive at all to stop making junk because you keep buying it.

Eventually, the only way to make this work is to have 100% abstracted infrastructure, so that any change, for good or bad, has no negative effect on the user and their application. If we cut the ties that bind our applications to specific infrastructure we'll be free to spend our time doing interesting stuff like solving business problems or optimizing the use of the data we've been saving all these years. Then the kids will be back.

Send me your questions -- about anything, really, to sinceuasked@computerworld.com.

Steve Duplessie founded Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. in 1999 and has become one of the most recognized voices in the IT world. He is a regularly featured speaker at shows such as Storage Networking World, where he takes on what's good, bad -- and more importantly -- what's next. For more of Steve's insights, read his blogs.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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