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The "IT" Generation

A look at the road information technology has traveled.

By Anne Baye Ericksen

You have to admit it’s kind of fun to take a look back at what used to be state-of-the-art technology. For example, 40 years ago, TVs were black and white and remote-control-less. Telephones were predominantly rotary dial and permanently wired into position. Stereos consisted of multiple vacuum tubes that generated considerable heat, and computers consumed entire rooms.

Now take a look around you. You’ve grown up during a technological explosion. Televisions relay digital signals from hundreds of channels with high-definition images. Phones are not only wireless, but send photos and videos, text messages and, yes, even conversations. Personal stereo devices fit in your pocket and can hold thousands of tracks. And computers can go with you anywhere and fit in the palm of your hand. You are part of the techno generation.

But, did you know that with each new innovation an opportunity for a technical professional to service the product and user was created? Although the terminology “Information Technology” (IT) is relatively new, the profession is not. The truth is IT specialists have been around as long as computers. And just like the technology, they have undergone many transformations along the way. Here, Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers tapped into the experience of industry and academic experts to discuss the past, present and future of IT.

Meet the Experts

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Distinguished Engineer and product manager in the OmniFind Enterprise Search for IBM, headquartered in White Plains, N.Y. “I got into IT by accident. I was an accounting major when I started working for IBM on night shifts, handling computer forms. I also taught myself how to program and found out people needed to find information about the programs I was writing, so I invented the electronic book format. After graduation, I was hired [full-time] into IBM Research. Since then, I’ve worked in research and content management, including ibm.com for eight years where I managed up to 70 people.

Neil Hopkins

Neil Hopkins is vice president of skills development for Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), located in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. “I got involved in training IT professionals who were installing networks at the time,” he says. After running his own business as well as working for a major distributor in South Africa, Hopkins joined Novell South Africa. In 2002, he emigrated to the United States where he eventually hooked up with CompTIA. “I have a passion for helping folks get training.”

Al Biles

Al Biles is a professor and the undergraduate program coordinator for Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) IT department. “I started at RIT in the fall of 1980 in the computer science department and moved into the IT department when it was created in 1994. I switched to IT because it was a much better fit for me,” he says. “I received my undergraduate in psychology and my master’s of science in computer science, but if IT had existed as an undergraduate major in the 1970s, I would’ve gravitated toward it.”


GECC: How would you define IT as a profession?

Neil Hopkins (NH): The breadth of IT is so vast these days. There are probably many varied answers, but from all the research we’ve done with customers and membership, an IT expert is someone who has the skills and knowledge to explore, maintain and launch IT structures.

Al Biles (AB): I want to preface by saying we’ve defined IT is as an academic discipline with a core set of skills, which is subtly different from how industry has defined it. We are user advocates, and come at the technology from the end-user perspective. Computer scientists and software engineers are classic technologists who know the bits and bytes, but they’re not necessarily communicating with end users, and that’s not IT.

One of the pillars of our program is User Center Design Deployment, which addresses the human stuff. We created human/computer interaction curriculum, but that’s only one aspect. There’s a course that calls for needs assessment, information gathering, user interviews, behavioral studies, designing questionnaires and task analysis. The bottom line for any IT professional is to climb inside the user’s head, see the world through the user’s eyes and understand the tasks the user wants.

GECC: How would you describe the beginnings of information technology? At what point was it separated out from computer/software programming?

Mike Moran (MM): It goes back to the start of computing in the 1950s. The organizations buying computers were developing software. Unofficially, they were the first IT people, but they were not called that. Rather, they were called data processors.

A turning point came when the IBM operating system (OS) distinguished itself as a program you would do inside of a business for data processing. There were different programming languages, such as COBOL, that were not the same used to write the computer’s operating system or hardware language. It offered a higher level of languages and marked a milestone where the skills and experience needed started to diverge. That’s when people recognized IT as a separate function from OS and product developers.

NH: I would say IT professionals, as we understand their functions, began no more 30 years ago. Around the late 1970s, even though the PC wasn’t invented yet, we were beginning to talk to each other using computers. It was at that time that people began to think it would be useful to exchange information electronically.

Of course, the birth of the PC in the early ’80s really made the exchange of information more valuable and easier. First, computers talked locally through Local Area Networks (LAN), then widely by tapping into other LANs. At that point, the sharing of information became a business tool, something you had to have if you were to compete because it meant getting documents faster than ever before.

AB: Around 1989/1990 we were starting a lot of micro-networking through which desktop PCs talked to servers and each other. Kids were coming out of computer science departments and writing programs for these networks. Also at that time, companies thought that, at the heart of it, everyone should be a programmer, but that was the wrong skill set required.

GECC: Who were some of the earliest employers? Were the jobs in the private, public or academic sector?

NH: In the beginning it was academia and then the government, like the aerospace industry. There were also huge manufacturers and retail organizations. They soon discovered that they couldn’t compete without the computer, and that they had to have technical experts available.

MM: In the 1970s and 1980s, we noticed certain industries becoming technically savvy, such as financial services—the stock market, banks and insurance companies. They realized they could improve by switching from a paper-based system to an electronic one. Not only did they hire IT experts to do this conversion, but they were also looking at information technology as a differentiator in business. These businesses earned an edge over the competition, not only because they hired IT people, but because they got the best ones. Those companies truly helped to move the profession forward.

AB: Even early on, everybody had a need, but weren’t in the position to hire IT experts because they didn’t recognize it as a job. Instead, there were individuals whom I called “Fred.” He worked for a company with a computer on every desk and a LAN. One day Fred hooked up the new printer, so he became the “Systems Guy.” He also knew that if the email went on the fritz, he had to reboot the computer under Maxine’s desk, but he didn’t know why it was going down.

Then the company hired a co-operative (co-op) education student from RIT, who found the server, hooked up a monitor and logged in. The student learned the operating system was five versions out of date, so he updated everything and got the system operating better than ever. Also, the student noticed the network was painfully slow because bitmaps were being thrown around. He used the router to create a subnetwork for the CAD unit with its own bandwidth. Afterwards, the entire network was more responsive and everyone was happy.

Fred  is an example of how IT services went undervalued and underrepresented in the past. In my opinion, many companies still view it as a cost to minimize. What they typically run into, however, is that they lose control of the IT infrastructure, and the company grinds to a halt. You can’t do business in any industry without a good IT infrastructure.

GECC: What were some of the job responsibilities of the early IT professionals?

MM: Back in the ‘80s, IT people were mostly doing things in the backroom. There weren’t a lot of personal computers in business yet, so everything was done in batch jobs in which you’d run a series of records through algorithms overnight. As the PC evolved, it brought more and more technology to the average worker. That brought about the knowledge worker of the 1990s and the rise of the helpdesk. IT people needed a better grasp of technology and how to communicate with nontechnical people who were using the machines.

NH: Prior to the evolution of the PC, occasionally companies would bring in a technician for mainframe support to backup data and update. You had to know what was happening in those large air-cooled rooms. When LAN evolved, companies had every employee using a desktop computer for file storage, applications and printing. All of a sudden, hundreds, if not thousands, of employees had computer access and required support. You needed to be able to connect networks, run programs and access data. Out of that came the need to understand how to structure systems so business needs are met.

GECC: At what point did the academic environment start separating out IT as discipline and/or specialty?

AB: We established the RIT IT department in 1994 with 13 students, all of whom were transfers from computer science. In 2000, we had 1,300 students—that’s a 40% to 45% per year growth. The hard sell with corporations, to some extent, is that many still don’t recognize IT as an academic discipline. They hire computer science graduates and then teach them to talk with users.

NH: Academic institutes need to stop focusing on programming. It’s required, but it’s not the only skill utilized in IT. Four-year programs don’t have a well-rounded understanding of how IT plays a role in business.

MM: There are joint efforts from computer science and business programs, and sometimes IT is in the business department. Universities are now understanding the merger of business and technology, which is different from the computer science approach.

GECC: How did the dot-com boom and bust affect the IT job market?

AB: A watershed event was the advent of Netscape. Before that, I would argue, there wasn’t a compelling enough reason for most people to have a computer—they didn’t care or it was unusable. But that changed almost overnight because computers went from functionality to userability.

NH: In the late 1990s, the Y2K problem had companies employing experts to deal with the potential problems. When that became a nonevent, businesses realized they had too many people, and their systems were running just fine. That was the bust in the industry.

Then we started seeing business-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer usage on the Internet, not just networking. Those functions now needed administering. More recently, voice and data systems are converging, so IT staffs have to be aware of how that could benefit existing data networks and make businesses more competitive.

MM: I don’t think they had as big of an impact on the IT market that people claimed. The dot-com buildup created an artificial competition for talent. Today, IT people are in ever-more demand, and will be for the foreseeable future.

GECC: How have job responsibilities changed, especially as professionals want to progress up the career ladder?

AB: It’s not always the case that IT specialists want to climb the management ladder. Many of our graduates do not have [the aspirations] to be technology officers. Rather, they want to work with the technology as independent consultants. The officer position is a better fit for someone who earns an IT undergraduate and then a MBA.

MM: I urge people not to become too specialized. You can become so focused on deep technical skills that you begin to look at the world through a small lens. Your advice becomes colored. You should have a real appreciation of the other specialties’ perspectives.

The ticket to success is to combine deep technical skills with an understanding of business. Plus, you have to be able to communicate your ideas to those without your technical insights.

Also, you have to connect what you know to a business problem that can be solved. It used to be people became heads of data processing and then directors of IT and now chief information officers. In this role, you look at how to make IT efficient. Now you’re not just figuring out how to help users, but how the technology can be used to make a difference in the business. Look at Federal Express, for example. So much of its business is tied up in technology: To get packages, track them, move trucks and schedule airlines. But if you looked at the organization in 1975 and said a package delivery business would be a technical business 30 years later, people would have laughed.

NH: IT professionals must understand what they are doing with the business and how it fits together in the organization. Also, with transferring data over the Internet, the question has become how secure is it all. Security is the biggest issue today. However, there are still needs for the helpdesk function. This is someone who has the basic computing skills and who can troubleshoot.

There’s also tremendous growth in home technology usage with personal computers, high-definition TV and huge audio centers. There’s a huge demand for specialists who will provide service for this ever-growing technology.

GECC: What skills and qualifications are in most need for future IT professionals?

AB: We’re teaching about the importance of users; that principle isn’t changing.

NH: I don’t think there’s a job out there that doesn’t require interaction with a PC or other computing device, like PDA and cell phones. Understanding how these devices attach to networks is very important.

IT is no longer just about managing a data network. The IT professional of tomorrow will have a solid understanding of both the technological and business sides. If you’re going to make it to the boardroom, then you no longer can be just the techie. We need well-rounded professionals with marketing and accounting knowledge.

MM: I think the soft skills are the more important focus now—communications, teamwork and business savvy. The other thing is to continuously learn. What I knew about the computer business 30 years ago isn’t true anymore. A strong IT person has a quest for knowledge.

GECC: What’s the job market going to like in the near future?

NH: The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting that by 2012 there will be a shortage of 500,000 IT professionals. Employers are saying they need IT professionals, so I see a job market that’s pretty positive.

AB: The demand for IT skills is ubiquitous—all companies have them. They may not necessarily need hardware or network designs that require electrical or computer engineers, but rather the IT staff who knows how to make this stuff work for you is in high demand.

MM: Students make a mistake by looking at the current market conditions. They’re far better off finding something they’re really passionate about. Find a job that you’re excited about, not one based on whether the economy went up or down.

If the technology of the 1960s seems archaic to us, one can only imagine what future generations will think of your plasma screens, cell phones, MP3 players and PDAs. The bigger question, however, is how will future devices affect your IT career. Perhaps you’ll find yourself bridging multiple functions and disciplines or planning technology strategies. Either way, as an IT specialist, you’ll definitely be creating solutions.

Anne Baye Ericksen is a free-lance writer based in Southern California.

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