Back in the late 1990s many studies were conducted among IT staff by employers to find the factors that would encourage employee loyalty through the Y2K crisis. One of the most common findings was that many IT people wanted what they called "careers" as much as or more than they wanted immediate monetary rewards.
So what is a career? IT professionals might say, "it is a series of jobs, each more responsible and better paid than the last", or "it is the development of your capabilities and your value in the market", or even just "it is about climbing up the greasy pole".
The notion of a career seems inevitably tied up with progression. This is not necessarily about status, or getting ahead relative to others. People compare their current position with where they were and want to feel they have moved on.
People glibly talk about "young analyst programmers" and "business analysts with a few years' experience looking for that big management job". And, according to employers, many graduates come into IT expecting to be in a management position within two years. The reality is very different: the average senior analyst programmer is in their mid-30s and will probably have been programming for more than 10 years. Vast numbers of other experienced technical staff are also doing what are essentially the same jobs that they were doing five years ago. The systems they work on and the technical environment and "hard" technical skills they require will have changed. The core of the job has not.
The managerial ambitions of many technical people have too often been thwarted by the fact that turnover among IT managers is low and there are only a limited number of jobs to go round. One answer to this problem is the technical career ladder, and this can help. But no company needs more than a small number of technical strategists or architects.
So how can IT people be given a fresh sense of progress and career?
Opportunities at senor level - created by expansion or steady turnover - are one component. Another is a career structure that provides a way of benchmarking and accelerating the development of people. Something that recognises formally and publicly that staff have developed and that their contribution has grown.
The old, highly layered career structures of 10 years ago did this. However, the inadequacy of the differentiating factors, and the status baggage that came with it, caused it to be replaced by broad-banded career structures. Progress was marked with a promotion every 10 years - for the lucky few.
The challenge now is to create frameworks that enable recognition and development without introducing an excessively status-driven culture. This means re-engineering career structures to have clearer, more relevant and development-focused career benchmarks, and to loosen the link between career benchmarks and pay. "Progress" will not always be accompanied by a change of pay band and vastly increased status.
Iain Smith is a director of IT staffing consultancy Diaz Research