The computer hardware may look the same in different companies, but the sector you work in can have a major impact on your experiences as an IT professional. Despite the high number of points of similarity, IT departments in different sectors have developed largely independently. This has given rise to different cultures, drivers and expectations which are reflected in the type of IT organisations use and the way they tackle problems.
A working life will be very different for an IT professional employed by a car manufacturer compared to a big financial institution. Work in a media company will not be like working for a local council. The choice of company could determine how fulfilling your career is.
"The most challenging one would have to be the public sector," says interim IT manager Colin Beveridge, who has worked in 21 different blue-chip companies as well as a healthy smattering of public sector roles. "We had to cut through some of the protocol that was endemic in the public sector and still carry everyone along with us," he says, adding that this involved "stretching, rather than breaking, the rules".
However, times are changing. The flowering of public sector IT, once seen as a backwater, constitutes one of the biggest changes in the IT marketplace in recent years and the sector is becoming an ever more attractive proposition for go-ahead IT professionals. It is experiencing massive, albeit uneven, investment as it rushes to hit government targets for providing 100% of services electronically by 2005.
An enormous number of ambitious IT projects are being undertaken around the UK, resulting in the creation of jobs offering more competitive salaries. The appointment of Deloitte Consulting's Richard Granger to the post of director-general of the NHS' IT programme, on a salary of about £250,000, is just such as case. Meanwhile, some IT budgets in the private sector are being cut and IT jobs are at risk.
All this is a far cry from the situation five years ago, when Beveridge says that neither he nor his fellow interim IT managers would actively seek public sector work, especially those peers whose prime motivation was money. Attitudes have also changed. "People in the public sector are waking up to the need to have a more commercial approach internally," says Beveridge. Flexible working practices such as hot-desking and remote working are becoming common.
The transition from the private sector to the public is not for everyone, however. Changes on the surface can be misleading and cultural issues, internal politics and stakeholder wrangles can run deep. Ex-IT director Robina Chatham, who teaches a course on organisational politics and IT management at Cranfield School of Management, says opportunities for training and professional development are better in the private sector, although she does not see a big difference between the sectors.
Chatham points out that all companies have payroll, financial and product systems and it is usually just the product systems that are different. She says the biggest changes have involved moving between companies specialising in high value, low volume offerings and those focused on low value, high volume offerings rather than moving between sectors. The fact is that while the sectors are different in design and outlook, it is the particular culture and outlook of the organisation you work for that defines your experience.
One factor that affects your work experience is the extent to which the IT department is aligned with the business. Traditionally the manufacturing and public sectors have been behind the game in this area, with the old "us and them" mentality remaining largely unchecked until recently. For retailers business and IT are already closely linked. As Littlewoods' IT director David Hallett puts it, "You're not just an IT director, you can't get away with that now."
Another factor is the level of funding available to the IT department. Historically, the financial services sector has been the big spender on IT, particularly in the mid-1990s, but now, "It's the public sector that has the money," says Beveridge.
At the other extreme is manufacturing. As Simon Bragg of specialist consultancy ARC says, "Manufacturing IT spend in the past few years has been awful." He says there are fewer prospects for IT professionals in this sector and those that do enter it should be prepared to spend less time with cutting-edge technology and more time with processes and algorithms. You might find that a large chunk of your time is spent managing outsourced maintenance contracts, Bragg warns.
At the end of the day, the key factor in deciding to take a senior IT job is often the scale of the challenge and the opportunity for reward it presents. After all, one thing IT professionals love is a challenge. This is one of the reasons IT professionals head for the not-for-profit sector, which tends to be less developed than the commercial side, and it is also what drives IT professionals to go into a failing IT department to try and turn it around.
While the rewards and challenges may vary, each sector offers a wealth of opportunities for IT professionals. The close-ups on the manufacturing, retail, financial services, charity and public sectors overleaf show that people still get a kick out of meeting their ITchallenges.
Public sector is in the "wow" phase
The public sector can offer a wonderful range of experience for IT professionals, according to Robin Carsberg, who spent 20 years in local government IT; is a past president of the Society of IT Management; and now has his own consultancy firm. "Now more than ever before in local government the IT staff are seen as real partners in terms of delivering the front-line services people need and that is very rewarding," he says. "There's a buzz. There's a lot to do, a lot to be achieved and it ain't going to happen by itself."
People in local government are also lovely to work with, says Carsberg. There is a real will to help the local community and most have a real sense of doing something worthwhile. However, he laughs at the idea that the public sector is awash with money at the moment. "The reality is that you're producing a great deal with very scarce resources," he says, but therein lies the challenge.
The situation also varies greatly across the sector. The state of IT in the NHS "is hopeless," says health consultant Roy Lilley, a member of the government's IT taskforce for the NHS. "There's a terrible lack of vision about IT in the NHS. It's changing slowly but the problem is that so much of the high- and mid-management is home-grown and has no experience of IT outside the NHS," he says. For Lilley, the key problem is the procurement process, which is often suspect and by the time technology is procured it is already out of date.
However, "I love it," he says. "I fell into the sector by accident but it's the sector I love and I still get excited by IT and what it can offer the NHS."
Lilley used to work as a managing consultant in the private sector and he says that whereas most companies take IT for granted, the NHS is still in the "wow" stage.
"It's like going back in time after working in the private sector," he says. There is also a feeling that they're finally getting grips to the problem and funding has been earmarked. "It's an exciting and challenging place to be," says Lilley.
You may be in a shed but you are a vital cog in the manufacturing machine
Imagine being stuck out in a shed in the middle of an industrial site and, if you're lucky, a burger van comes around at lunchtime. That is how Simon Bragg of consultancy ARC jokingly describes working in the manufacturing sector. "But so long as you're not actually in the plant itself, then working in IT in manufacturing is great," he says.
Bragg feels that the acquisition cycle is better managed than other sectors, especially with the public sector which "takes forever to make a decision", he says. In manufacturing, as in retail, the focus is on enabling better business processes through IT. Expertise in implementing packaged software and identifying the package that will become the market leader is a key requirement, says Bragg.
Manufacturing has a more pragmatic approach to IT and the return on investment has to be achieved much quicker than in sectors like financial services, says interim IT manager Colin Beveridge. Manufacturing also tends to take a more modular approach, preferring to use mid-range systems. As in distribution and logistics, there is an awful lot of time pressure, says Beveridge. Like Bragg, he says the key focus is on the business processes to keep things moving along efficiently.
"I thoroughly enjoyed my time in manufacturing," says Robina Chatham, lecturer at Cranfield School of Management and former IT director. In one of her roles, Chatham worked for a shipbuilding company. She says that at the time computers were just coming on to the shopfloor and "it was very exciting", although she believes it may not be as exciting now.
Wanted for charities sector: creative IT professionals with a flair for service delivery
Bob Harvey, head of IT at children's charity Barnardo's, says the voluntary sector is still immature and that makes it a very exciting place for IT professionals. "There are lots of opportunities to use IT and do new things. That's what keeps me here and keeps my staff here," he says.
Harvey spent 28 years on the services side of the IT industry, working for companies such as EDS, before joining Barnardo's in 1991. At that time the charity had fewer than 50 PCs for its 5,000 staff - a far cry from the "major IT operation" it is now. "I have been at the helm of a fundamental shift in an organisation," he says.
The idea that the charity sector is completely different to the commercial sector is "completely false", says Harvey. Although the drivers are different - and apart from fundraising - the key focus is on service delivery. The two biggest challenges for Harvey are negotiating with suppliers and the lack of products in the market aimed at the specific needs of charities. This means the team has to be more creative.
Harvey's words are echoed by Graham Lane, IT director at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. "There's always a challenge of resources," says Lane. "We don't have the big budgets of the commercial world so we have to be more imaginative and creative but that's extremely rewarding and I love the sense of fulfilment it gives," says Lane. Staff also tend to be highly motivated and committed to organisational goals, he says.
Technology and knowledge management are central to Amnesty's work and Lane works closely with the organisation to help it to achieve its goals. He says the voluntary sector is seeing a big move towards networking, coalition building and collaboration on an international level and Amnesty is no exception. In the future, the organisation plans to use the Internet and electronic campaigning more.
Another major difference from the commercial sector is that it isn't affected by the peaks and troughs of the business cycle, says Lane, although in times of depressed jobs markets it is easier to recruit staff.
Fast-thinkers needed for retail
Littlewoods' IT director, David Hallett, has held IT roles in retail since the early 1980s and he clearly loves it. "I have always felt I'll stay in retail," he says. "It's the buzz of working with customers, suppliers and phenomenal volumes of products.
In retail the culture is about speed, doing deals and moving on. "We're very margin-focused so a key driver is delivering cost-efficient solutions," he says. However, for Hallett, the best bit is seeing the systems you have developed actually being used and bringing benefit. "That's where you get the real kick. It still gives me a thrill," he says.
Hallett likes the fact that his role is so central to the business. "You've got a very big matrix to manage and without IT you'd be dead in the water," he says. By working so closely with the business, Hallett has built up a lot of retail experience as well as IT skills over the years which have helped him to become a better IT director.
Retail-based IT roles vary considerably. Tom Kelt is IT business support manager for the retail operations of pottery manufacturer Royal Doulton, which has 180 shops in the UK and a number of in-store concessions. The retail operation is effectively a customer of the manufacturing parent company and Kelt admits there is sometimes "an element of conflict for resources" between the two sides. The two have completely different outlooks, says Kelt.
"In retail, the main challenge is the conflict between improving customer service and cost," he says. Project objectives tend to be similar though, with fairly constrained time-scales and payback periods for both areas, and the support function also tends to be similar, he says.
Kelt's role requires him to wear many different hats as he works on the warehousing, financial, fulfilment sides, and even manufacturing where his background lies. This helps him to feel close to the business and gives him a varied role with lots of fresh challenges. "There are a lot of interesting projects," he says. "The thing I enjoy most is when we put something in that is successful; helps the company; and has a cash benefit. When you do that it's great," Kelt says.
These are challenging times to work in the financial services sector
IT professionals in the financial services sector are thought more of; are better paid; and are considered more core to the business than in other sectors, says Robina Chatham, who has held senior IT roles in building societies, banks and insurance. There is more money if you want to invest in IT infrastructure, she says - unlike the public sector "where you have to justify every penny you spend".
However, pensions companies are now only able to charge a 1% administration fee on some products - making it imperative that IT drives down costs. This means that the sector as a whole has become much tighter on its IT spending over the past three years, says Margaret Smith, director of business information systems at life insurance firm Legal & General.
"It's pretty exciting at the moment. It's a huge challenge," says Smith, who has spent the past 20 years in the sector.
Another challenge is data retention. Whereas in retail or manufacturing you can sell or produce a product and move on, with pensions and life insurance you may have to access and use that customer's data for up to 60 years, putting a large burden on your systems and storage requirements, says Smith.
Like Chatham, Smith says that a key factor in financial services is that IT is so central that you're closely involved with the business and how business strategy relates to IT. "But what's kept me here is the mental stimulation, the challenges and the interest," says Smith. There is constant change and a lot of innovation, she says, and this is what tends to surprise people when they come into the sector from other areas.
However, Bob Avery, IT director of evolvebank.com, Lloyds TSB's European online banking operation, yearns for the 1980s when he first joined the industry. "It was very exciting. We were very much leading edge in IT, writing our own applications and developing IBM hardware, and technically it was very challenging," he says.
Avery says the retail banking industry is fast becoming a commodity business and it can be frustrating to enact change through IT owing to the scale of the organisations. While Avery says there is still a lot of IT going on in banks, it tends to be big IT projects and there is an increasing shift towards outsourcing. "We had an exciting period with the Internet but now all of the opportunities have been tried from an IT perspective," he says.
Avery is now looking forward to the IT challenges that will be thrown up by the transition to the euro.