Preserving Our Tech Competence

Change is coming to IT. That's hardly a news bulletin. The question that interests me is whether the U.S. will have the trained people it will need for dealing with the coming changes.

I've been in IT for more than 40 years. In some ways, that's a brief period of time, considering that since my days as a unit record operator, I've seen amazing advancements like IBM's System/360, PCs, client/server, the Internet, wireless communication, smartphones and social networking. And we aren't done with innovation by any means.

Some of the latest developments include cloud computing and cheap storage. Those that are on the way include true Internet ubiquity, nanotechnology, biosensors and even transhumanism (a movement that calls for the use of science and technology to improve human mental and physical capacities). These technologies will challenge us to adjust our personal and working regimens in ways that we cannot comprehend.

Other changes have been organizational. I have reservations about outsourcing and offshoring, but they are a reality of the global economy. There's no going back. What we have to recognize, though, is what a colossal mistake it would be to let the outsourcing trend go unchecked until nearly every technology job in the world is located outside of the U.S.

This is going to be tricky, because the offshoring trend feeds on itself. As the number of IT jobs available here decreases, it becomes harder to attract young people to the profession. Enrollment in computer science courses in the U.S. has been down for years, and I've even heard IT professionals, including CIOs, question whether IT is a profession they would recommend to their children.

But I'm not a pessimist. In fact, when I try to envision what's in store for IT, I see good things.

Yes, the "foreignization" of parts of the development process is probably irreversible, but it implies that the technologist of the future will be a technology adapter who determines how to harness the tools available for the benefit of the corporation, a technology trainer who helps his business colleagues use emerging technologies, a thinker like Ray Kurzweil and not a skeptic like Nick Carr, an innovator who uses available technologies to enhance the competitive edge of the corporation.

Ultimately, the successful corporation of the future will be a digital masterpiece where all parts work together, and we will need technologists to make it all work.

Such corporations are going to need smart, tech-savvy people who can see the future and who have the skills to implement it. The raw materials of such a cadre of professionals reside in a generation that has grown up with computers, using them with intuitive ease to play games and get information instantly. We must challenge this most connected generation in history to build on their comfort with technology in ways that move our culture and economy forward.

The federal government has a role here. It must encourage innovation and promote the idea that, because technology will continue to play an ever more central role in our lives, we cannot afford to fail to train and educate the people who will help make this happen.

If we instead rely on other countries to provide our technology competence, we will be outsourcing our future and risking one of our greatest competitive advantages in this fast-moving global economy. We cannot let that happen.

Paul M. Ingevaldson retired as CIO of Ace Hardware in 2004 after 40 years in the IT business. You can contact him at ingepi@aol.com or visit his Web site, PaulIngevaldson.com.

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