What's the secret of IT success? Bill Goodwin sifts through a massive careers survey from the NCC and Computer Weekly to find out
What does it take to become a high flyer in information technology? The answers may surprise you. Where you work, how often you change jobs, and what you did before you entered IT could actually have a much greater influence on your pay than your technical abilities.
The National Computing Centre (NCC), together with Gateway and Computer Weekly, analysed the careers of almost 3,000 IT professionals, chosen at random from Computer Weekly readers, to see just what it takes to become an IT high flyer. Among other factors, we have looked at their educational qualifications, their technical experience, the industry they are working in, their gender and the type of work they are doing.
Male or female?
Unfortunately the research confirms what many people in the IT industry know already: the highest earners tend to be male. Whether this reflects pay discrimination or is the result of the IT industry's failure to attract women employees is an open question.
However, the results show that while 27% of high flyers are male, only 18% are female. In contrast, 42% of low flyers are women and compared to only 25% male.
Having a university degree increases your chances of earning a higher salary, but only slightly.
A lot also depends on the choice of the degree. Engineering, it turns out, is a far better choice than a computer science degree if a high salary is important. A second degree, in any subject, is also a significant factor in edging you into a higher earning bracket.
If you chose not to go into IT straight away, then your choice of first career can have an enormous influence on your later IT earnings. Many of the high earners in the survey have joined IT from an academic, scientific or accounting background. Similarly, start out in teaching or clerical work, and the statistics suggest you are more likely to be a low flyer.
Choice of industry
If you want to maximise your salary as an IT professional, you will need to think very carefully about which industry you want to join.
The NCC's research shows there are more high flyers in the finance, business services, and IT services than in any other industry sector.
Similarly, there are more low flyers in local government, health and education. The distribution industry lies somewhere in the middle, attracting equal numbers of high and low flyers.
Type of IT work
The sort of IT work you chose to do is also crucial. If you want to earn really big bucks, consider working in the sales and marketing department of an IT supplier. But remember that the work is usually commission based, so that your take-home pay will depend very heavily on just how many sales you make.
If that's not your cup of tea, try and land a job that focuses on information systems strategy, resource management or project management. Areas to avoid include IT training, user support and computer ergonomics.
No matter where you start, you can expect your salary to grow as you gain experience. But the salary gulf between high flyers and low flyers becomes wider with each year.
After 20 years' experience, the high flyers can expect to be earning about £20,000 more than the low flyers, even though both start off on similar salaries.
The findings show that having a broader technical experience can only slightly increase your chances of earning a higher salary. Having experience of different industrial sectors also appears to have little impact on your chances of earning a higher salary.
Changing jobs frequently does seem to help to boost your salary, but the differences are subtle.
Among people who move jobs regularly, 30% are high flyers compared to only 20% of the long stayers. On the other hand, the survey suggests that 22% of the fast movers are also low flyers.
Money isn't everything
We measured high flyers by the salaries they earn. We have classed the high flyers as those whose earnings are above the upper quartile of the sample, and the low flyers as those earning less than the lower quartile. But at the end of the day, salary is rarely the most important factor in any job. For many people, job satisfaction, colleagues, and location are a higher priority.
The raw figures themselves cannot answer the question of why all the factors looked at in the survey are important in earning a higher salary.
So, although there are more high flyers in finance, for instance, the survey sheds no light on whether finance companies are simply hiring better people at the outset, or whether finance genuinely offers better opportunities for the average IT worker.
What makes a high flyer?
We asked what the highest earning professionals - the high flyers - have in common, as well as what factors seem to be associated with the lowest earning professionals. The results have been adjusted to take into account regional variations in salary, so our findings are applicable whether you have a fantastically well paid Java job in the City of London, or are earning half the amount doing the same work in Aberystwyth. We have also taken into account how much experience each person has, in order to see which factors can truly make the difference to your salary.
The results show that a carefully chosen career path can be just as important as your programming or management skills if you want to make the big time. Make the wrong choices and you are more likely to find yourself stuck on the bottom rung of the salary ladder.
Be warned, while some differences between a high flyer and a low flyer are stark, others are extremely subtle. But if you are setting out to reach the top of the IT profession, acting on the NCC/Computer Weekly findings could definitely help you to shift the odds in your favour.
Steps to a high salary
Steps to a low salary
Gateway notebook winners
Everyone who took part in the National Computing Centre/Computer Weekly/Gateway Career Tracking Survey was entered into a prize draw to win one of two fabulous Gateway Solo 9300 XL notebook computers.
Powered by Intel's new 700MHz Mobile Pentium III processor, the Solo 9300 XL boasts the industry's largest screen, plus XL Dolby Digital/AC-3 output, 8x DVD Rom drive, an ATI 2x AGP 3D graphics accelerator with 8Mbytes of SGRam, IEEE 1394 (Firewire) for digital editing, and composite video output ports.
The two lucky winners are Martin Quinn of NatWest Bank and Mike Hindson-Evans of AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals.
This was first published in October 2000