Coping with the generation game to cut the credibility gap

Puffer has replaced corduroy, but can the IT director pull the department together?

Puffer has replaced corduroy, but can the IT director pull the department together?

During the past 25 years a quiet revolution has been taking place in IT departments. Looking at clothing could be the best way to illustrate my point.

In the dim and distant past of the data processing manager, you could walk into computer department wearing sandals and an elbow-patched corduroy jacket, sporting a fine thicket of facial hair and not fear ridicule in the slightest.

Nowadays, you might see an IT professional wearing a trendy Schott puffer jacket and Police shades. He might even use hair gel.

So what happened? The answer lies in the fact that IT people themselves have changed.

It is not that the geek is extinct. The species is alive and thriving on the obscurities of object oriented programming. But, from the late 1980s, the application of IT to much broader business processes created a massive demand for IT professionals that sucked in people from all walks of life.

Take this example: a friend of mine, let's call her Jane, left university in the early 1990s with a degree in social sciences and wanted to go travelling around the world. After a few months working in a call centre she still had no savings, while her boyfriend, who worked in IT, was raking it in.

So, he showed her where the file manager was on a PC; she littered her CV with a few appropriate acronyms and sent it off to employers ravenous for PC support staff. She got a job and doubled her money without any experience and with no qualifications. Everything was picked up on the job.

The experience she gained allowed her to work in IT while travelling and now she manages a helpdesk for a giant IT services company on a multimillion-pound outsourcing contract.

Such a story would have been unthinkable 25 years ago, when many senior IT managers came into the profession. You could not just walk into the mainframe room and hope to blag your way through a working day without anyone noticing.

Most IT professionals had a degree in computer science, maths or physics. They did real coding, nothing like HTML or Visual Basic.

So, is this a bad thing? Well, no. IT departments, because they reach into business units more than ever before, require a greater diversity of roles.

In addition to the core skills of application development and hardware support, IT departments need individuals with a range of skills such as presentation, research, people management, customer service, and so on. A deep understanding of how a computer actually works might not be necessary for many roles present in today's IT departments.

But it does leave a problem. A period of extraordinarily rapid growth in IT is over, perhaps never to return. Now it is time to consolidate the position of IT in the business and boost its credibility.

This is a tough task. The business knows what it gets with accountants, lawyers and sales people. With the diversity of people in IT departments, the challenge for the IT leaders of tomorrow is to unify this team with a common set of values so that they can foster the belief that IT investment delivers business goals.

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