IT's Coal Mining Jobs


I had the opportunity to speak for an hour or so yesterday with Bruce Daley, editor of the The Siebel Observer. Bruce asked the question "Where are the white spaces in enterprise software?", a topic at the upcoming Enterprise Software Summit which Bruce hosts. We had a great conversation; I wished I'd recorded it. The conversation centered around the IT hierarchy of needs and the problems facing most corporations.

The IT Hierarchy of Needs (click to enlarge)

If you haven't seen the IT hierarchy of needs before, the idea is pretty simply. There are some problems you have to solve before you even become aware of or appreciate the scope of other problems. The bottom level is called "base infrastructure" and includes things like desktops, networks, etc.--the stuff that it takes to just make the enterprise go everyday. At the top is "business processes" meaning automation of and support for business activities.

The problem is that while most CEOs are screaming for the top two or three levels of the hierarchy, most IT shops are struggling with the realities of the bottom three. Everyone ignores data.

Its not that the problems in the bottom layers are intractable, they're not. The first two, in particular are pretty well understood. So, what's the problem? The problem is that most IT shops are afraid to do what it takes to solve the infrastructure problems. I know, you're thinking that's ridiculous. Why should they be afraid? That was my first reaction too, but I've seen it with my own eyes, more than once. IT shops actively resist the infrastructure best practices that will lead to excellence.

At the heart of the problem is that most IT professionals enjoy troubleshooting PC and network problems. Its predictable work that has nearly immediate payoff because you solve multiple problems per day and people think you're a hero for doing it. No one gives you and attaboy when their PC just works.

On top of this positive feedback is lack of vision. They can't imagine what will fill their days if they're not fixing PCs and networks all day. They have trouble envisioning the work at the top of the hierarchy and what if will mean to them professionally.

This leads to the fear that there won't be any work left and they will lose their jobs.

I think that this same notion is behind the constant talk of off-shore outsourcing and the dire predictions that IT jobs will shrink as more and more work is pushed off-shore. Take another look at the hierarchy and ask yourself which of those tasks can be outsourced (off-shore or not). That's right, the bottom levels. You can't outsource the top levels of the hierarchy.

What's getting outsourced? The IT equivalent of coal mining jobs. My undergraduate degree is in metallurgical engineering and I've spent some time in mines. Its dirty, but high paying work that doesn't require much formal education. People love it. But its also subject to lots of ups and downs and over the years had steadily declined.

My prediction is that while hundreds of thousands of IT jobs will go off-shore in the next decade, we'll gain more than we lose as we move up the hierarchy. We do a poor job of meeting demands at the top of the hierarchy and there's plenty of work to do. When you think about the real problems that IT should be solving, its amazing how little attention we pay to them. Our goal ought to be to provide every employee with the information they need to do their job when they need it. Instead, we throw an email client and a word processor at them and say "good luck." We can do better and the first step is to embrace the changes that are required to solve the problems at the bottom of the hierarchy---even if that means some pain in the short term.