The future of information technology in the United States will be determined not just in computer labs, but at kitchen tables and on long car rides. Or anywhere else that grown-ups and teenagers get together to talk. It's those powerful conversations that just might tip a kid toward or away from a technology career - conversations like the one Melody Huang is having with her 19-year-old daughter.
Huang's IT education has led her on a 20-year global business career - as developer, consultant, business owner and, now, a lead IT architect with Valley Forge, Pa.-based Vanguard Group, the mutual fund company. Encouraged by Huang's example, her daughter, Katherine, a college sophomore with an undeclared major, took advanced placement computer courses in high school. But these days, she's uncertain when her mother pitches IT as a great career. "She's hearing that the jobs aren't really out there, and you're going to be pressed down the corporate ladder," Huang relates. "That perception is definitely out there."
It's not just the kids. After bottoming out following the dot-com bust, IT employment is back to 2001 levels, at about 3.4 million people. Yet, ask a group of IT pros whether they'd recommend the career to their kids and many won't be as positive as Huang. "If your interest is motivated by the desire to innovate, to come up with new and better ideas, computer science continues to be one of the most viable fields for people good in math, science and human behavior," Huang asserts.
Dead wrong, say others. "I would never advocate a career in IT for anyone," writes David Leitl, a systems administrator, in response to a blog posted by InformationWeek, a CMP Media property. "If you enjoy working very hard and long hours for less money, I guess it's OK. Personally, I am considering getting my MBA and getting out of IT." No wonder IT-related enrollments are down 50 percent or more at most colleges and universities.
Still, many believe IT offers a promising career path - despite outsourcing, globalization and automation. But, IT-dependent companies have taken the tech-talent pipeline for granted, and more people and companies need to stand up as advocates to attract the brightest minds to technology careers. The future of the tech industry in America will be determined in part by how many Melody Huangs make a passionate argument for the future of the IT career.
As a senior lecturer at MIT, Jack Rockart has seen IT's popularity ebb and flow in the past. He has the long view - in the field since 1957, Rockart laid eyes on the second computer ever made. But this current downturn in IT interest feels different to him, he relates.
The factors pile up. The dot-com bust caused major displacement, and the computer industry's maturity means it has lost some cool, as many kids take technology for granted. But what's most damaging is the specter created by offshore competition and outsourcing, according to Rockart. "It's not the amount of outsourcing taking place," he says. "It's the impact on people of, 'Hey, the jobs are going away.' It's the expectation of what might happen."
At least one Wall Street firm, however, reports that it is not having trouble finding talent. Despite a desire for recruits with more in-depth database experience and a greater knowledge of application integration, Perry Metviner, a managing director with New York-based Merrill Lynch, says there is no troubling lack of IT skills among U.S. graduates. Still, he acknowledges that outsourcing has some students questioning the wisdom of embarking on a Wall Street-focused tech career.
At a New York University IT career event, Metviner recalls, students were very concerned that offshoring would hurt their career prospects. "Our response to that is that we are not offshoring as much as you might think," he says. "The stuff that we are offshoring is some of the low-value, commoditized stuff. The really close-to-business stuff is staying very close to where the business actually is."
Yet, the share of incoming undergrads indicating they'd major in computer science dropped 60 percent from fall 2000 to 2004, according to the Computing Research Association's analysis of data from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Even at Stanford, one of the world's top universities for IT, the number of computer science majors last year was down 35 percent since its peak during the 2000 dot-com heyday. But that does not necessarily worry Stanford computer science chairman Bill Dally; he saw a "bimodal" student body during the dot-com boom - those who loved IT and science, and those looking for a dot-com windfall. What worries Dally is the waning overall interest in engineering and science.
MIT's Rockart agrees. "This is not just a problem with regard to information technology," he says. "This is a U.S. problem with regard to all technology."
In a survey of 251 CIOs and CTOs by McKinsey & Co. conducted earlier this year, "finding talent" was cited more often than any other managerial challenge as having the most-significant effect on executing strategy over the next five years. U.S. IT leaders describe a death-spiral scenario: Global competition drives kids from the field; declining enrollments mean fewer classes and opportunities on campus, which discourages even more potential candidates; companies won't pay high salaries for increasingly rare U.S. talent, so they push more work abroad; and other countries fill in the talent gap and increase their leadership in technology.
"It's not like the U.S. has any lock on innovation and creativity - we don't," says Nancy Markle, former CIO of Arthur Andersen and a past president of the Society of Information Management. With smaller IT enrollments and a pending wave of baby boomer retirements, the pinch is coming, she points out. "Five years from now, when we see the hole we've created, we're going to go the other way and start increasing opportunities and attracting students," she predicts. "But it's going to be too late."
For now, MIT's Rockart doesn't hesitate to recommend a career in technology. "I tell people to go into the field," he says. "The need for people who can do the job of being a business manager and technical manager is greater than it ever has been before."
But taking a stand for the IT career path may be based on shaky ground. The entire economy is moving into uncharted global competition. Globalization has brought dramatic change to what IT people do in the United States, and it isn't done reshaping the profession. The goal for young pros should be to find a good foundation from which to grow, rather than hoping for safe ground. "In which industry are you going to go where you aren't going to have to compete?" asks Phil Zwieg, a VP of IS at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. "You've got to stay on your game to be able to compete."