VSJ – April 2001 – Work in Progress

Steve Cumbers, FIAP is a director of Apollo Consulting and Vice President of the IAP Council to which he is standing for re-election this spring. Prompted in part by Charles Ross’ article last month, he gives us his view of the IT Skills conundrum.

OPEN QUESTIONS: IT is an amorphous ‘sector’ with many poorly classified roles: user, power user, applications programmer, systems programmer, systems analyst, development manager, etc. So what is an IT skill? Are there different skill sets appropriate to different roles? Are there any general skills peculiar to IT? Can we identify skills that differentiate software engineering from physical engineering? And, having done so, can we detect and foster the talents that underpin the skills this volatile sector will need in the coming decades?

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUND: To the uninitiated, Java differs from C++ like French differs from German. To the programmer, the difference is more like that between American and English. Indeed, once you know one procedural language, all others are within easy reach. The uninitiated also contend that programming is facile; after all, kids do it. This is like dismissing the works of Shakespeare because anyone can knock up a quick play. Unfortunately, such misconception are held by many, including some IT chiefs who have been promoted sideways into the job rather than coming up through the ranks.

SKILLED LABOUR: The pejorative use of the word ‘skill’ in IT suggests a trade rather than a profession. IT specialists are not treated as professionals but as skilled labour. This is not only a bummer at dinner parties; it influences decision-makers from the Government down. Had IR35 targeted the earnings of barristers rather than IT freelancers, it is unlikely ever to have left the starting blocks.

LITTMANN CLASSIC: If the British Medical Journal carried an advert for people with three years’ experience of Littmann Classic (a stethoscope) instead of Junior Doctors, we would think them barmy. But the computer media carry adverts for staff with three years’ experience of Wizibang for Windows instead of Junior Programmers, and not an eyebrow is raised. The tool is emphasised over the qualities of the individual: two years VB is much more likely to secure ‘that job’ than NVQ or BSc, or a track record in problem solving.

PUTATIVE SHORTAGE: Even if we could identify generic talent, the market buys and sells proprietary skills. There are accomplished individuals who cannot get work because they are perceived as having yesterday’s skill. For example, today’s Java vacancies could readily be filled by the C++ programmers of yesterday because the underlying skills are identical, but many job descriptions insist on N-years Java experience. Over-specification creates a putative shortage.

QUICK FIX: Java is the latest IT panacea driven by astute marketing and the ever-present desire for a universal fix. But it too will become yesterday’s technology. If we ship in boatloads of Java programmers from Asia, what will happen to them when we ‘innovate’ ourselves into the next skills crisis? And do we then import a fresh cohort with the new hot skill? Surely it would be preferable to retrain our home-grown talent each time the hot skill changes or, better still, get real about the difference between fundamental and transient skills.

JOB PROSPECTS: Motivation and incentives are at least as important as selection and training. If it turned out that teenagers planning to read jurisprudence would make the best programmers, should they switch? The law offers high-status career paths with good income that usually increases with age. Programmers are seen as trade and their job prospects, let alone their income, often decline with age. A QC at 40, or an out-of-work C++ (or, by 2010, Java) programmer who is always ‘too senior’ for the role? Of course, good programmers escape into management, which is always a loss for programming and often a loss for management.

UNIFORM MEDIOCRITY: The obsession with ‘team players’ should be challenged. Team players are good for playing well-rehearsed games, where the rules are already determined. But IT thrives on creative individuals – people who change old rules and invent new ones – the essence of innovation. The manager’s responsibility is to provide a working environment in which creative individuals can flourish, not to dumb-down job descriptions to achieve uniform mediocrity for ease of management.

HOMO FABER: Market churning and the carousel of fashion overlay useful advances with waves of tools and methodologies that contribute little to real progress. Shortages of the skills ‘needed’ to use such tools are inevitable and much money is made out of resourcing, training and certification. So are tools requiring such consummate skill fit for purpose? Commenting on presentation tools used at Sun Microsystems, Richard Hillesley wrote: “the company removed the offending ‘productivity’ tools from its system and the workforce was obliged to find more useful things to do with its time.”

HOMO DOCENS: Problem solving is the pivotal skill that every organisation needs but few managers want. Instead, managers want the hot skill of the moment, preferably resident in the youngest head: a team player who will hit the ground running – straight into the nearest brick wall. Learning and discovery through purposeful play is a modern hominid speciality: begin by exploring the problem space and then find (or invent) the best tool for the task. This is the opposite of the tool-skill-task approach that pervades commercial IT: first buy a screwdriver, then find someone skilled in wielding that type of screwdriver, then set him to work hammering in nails.

OPPORTUNITIES LOST: In the publicity for his Royal Institution Discourse, Trevor Baylis OBE wrote “a recent study from Japan estimates that 56% of the world’s greatest inventions were born in this small island of ours, and yet we lose around £160 billion every year through UK inventions being developed overseas”. Raw creativity is not our primary problem. It is how we manage creative individuals (who, by their very nature, present a management challenge) that will determine the future prosperity of UK Ltd.

PROTESTANT ETHICS: Britain’s long-hours command and control culture deprives the economy of many talented individuals who could contribute if flexitime, teleworking and job-sharing were the norm rather than the exception. Such choices would help attract and retain women and older workers, as well as cutting out unnecessary commuting and flattening the rush-hour peak. Moreover, jobshare/flexitime workers outperform conventional colleagues, so raising skill availability would also increase productivity.

CONTRACTORS ANONYMOUS: We all know that the rewards for successful contractors are usually high, but so are the risks: no job security; no promotion prospects; and no employer-provided pension, health cover, holiday and sick pay. Yet the politics of envy has gifted us IR35, which imposes an exit pressure on extant contractors and dissuades new entrants just when the e-conomy needs them most. And while we drive our home-grown talent towards nominal destinations such as Eire, we look to India to make up the shortfall.

ENTREPRENEURS DISBAND: IR35 prevents many small companies, mainly in IT and engineering, from operating on equal terms with their larger competitors because turnover is treated as salary for tax and NIC purposes. Small businesses are therefore unable to make or retain profits or to allow business expenses such as training and equipment against tax. So they cannot invest for the future or plan to grow or develop. At the same time, the new fast track visa scheme encourages foreign-owned companies to bring in workers from overseas and force them to work for low salaries. So whilst the Government is in denial, our IT innovators are draining away and our tax base is shrinking along with our prospective knowledge-based economy.

READING INFORMATICS: It would make sense to get IT education closer to the scheme for Medicine: begin with computer science and progress into a supervised application environment – a centre of ‘Informatics’ excellence analogous to a teaching hospital. Staff would be paid on an enhanced scale (modelled on the clinical scale) thereby allowing the recruitment and retention of the best minds. These centres would develop open-source software for the public sector to justify direct funding. They would also facilitate the transfer of technology from university to private sector – extensive ‘leading edge R&D’ done by our universities currently often fails to benefit the UK economy.

GROWING CREATIVITY: The best predictor of children’s performance at age five is their level of

development at age three. Personal and social skills underlie language and cognitive development, enabling children to make sense of the world and giving them self-esteem and a disposition for learning. But traditional education is about social control and the employment needs of a bygone era. In a knowledge-based economy, it is not what you know but how fast you can learn and relearn that matters.

POLITICALLY INCORRECT: The foundation upon which ‘Education, Education, Education’ is built is encapsulated by Sir Christopher Ball’s acronym, NESTLE: nutrition, exercise, stimulation, talk, love, and [decent] environment. Secure attachment to the mother is at the heart of the natural curriculum for the first three years of life. This period includes critical developmental events such as the vocabulary burst at twenty-one months. So Tony Blair’s enthusiasm to get new mothers back to work may benefit the present economy to the detriment of the future economy.

2020 VISION: The first five years (from minus two to plus three) determine the life-chances, success and happiness of us all. Yet society tends to overlook this in the interests of gender equality and full employment. Remote working could help us square this circle without compromising the needs of child or mother. But, if the mother has to outsource childcare, how can we ensure that alternatives are so good that neither babies nor parents notice the difference? The young knowledge-based workers of 2020 are coming into the world right now, and early experiences will determine whether they fulfil their adult potential.

PROJECT LEADERSHIP: Having selected and nurtured the key skills and, from this pool of excellence, appointed the officers and crew to man the best ship in the fleet, the success of the mission still depends upon the Captain. That is, not a guy with MS Project on his PC, but someone with leadership and vision who understands that he/she is managing people. Deficiency here is why most IT-intensive projects fail, or fall short of the actual requirement, despite often having a plethora of technical skills and methodologies, a tactical steering committee (ten hands on the tiller must surely be better than one) and an entourage of management consultants.

HALF EMPTY: Surveys conclude that half of all IT vacancies go unfilled, and that half of all development staff are working on projects that will eventually fail. This suggests a shortage of management skills rather than the much-vaunted shortage of technical skills. But managers seldom recognise a skill deficit in themselves, so they ‘find’ the problem elsewhere and report accordingly. Proper training of project managers would have a far more sustainable benefit than scouring the far-flung empire for the hot skills of the moment.

Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!

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