Bringing sexy back?

Recent articles in the international press suggest that a career in IT is becoming hip and sexy again after a lull when technology didn't rank as an attractive option.

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The change in attitude is being fuelled by the nerds-get-rich glamour of Facebook, with movies like The Social Network showing students making millions from their college rooms.

There's even a name for this new hoodies-and-sneakers brigade entering the industry, with the word 'brogrammers' coined to describe the result of geek-meets-college-boy cool.

As CNN succinctly put it: “Forget what you think you know about the benignly geeky computer programme... and welcome to the world of the brogrammer.” On the down side, the change is turning some IT companies into 'your worst stereotype of a booze-soaked frat party', CNN reported.

So Brainstorm asked a few CIOs if SA is also seeing an image boost for IT careers compared to the nerds-only image of a few years ago.

Yes, indeed, by the sound of it.

“IT as a career has definitely come back into fashion with well-established career paths in companies across all industries,” says Cell C's CTO, Joe Brittz. “As technology evolves, so does the typical IT professional.”

Dynamic people

In this fast-paced world, the turnaround time to complete projects has become shorter, and IT has a critical role to play in ensuring that projects are carried out effectively within shorter deadlines, Brittz says. IT also plays a critical role in serving customer needs, and the public has become more demanding in its expectations of customer service.

“Taking all this into account, people working in IT need to have well-developed social skills to extract information from users and understand what may be lacking within the current system and be able to address shortcomings,” Brittz says. “The image of the socially awkward programming guru is therefore slowly disappearing and being replaced by people who are dynamic and have the ability to sense what the needs of IT users are and to effectively engage with users to extract the necessary information.”

Skills shortage

Yaron Assabi, CEO of Digital Solutions Group (DSG), says IT is no longer a profession dominated by geeks because technology is integral to every business, so it is no longer just about programming and engineering. Customers now expect technology professionals to have a talent for business analysis, business case design and a multitude of new services, including social media and mobility. The job descriptions and the profile of IT professionals are changing, Assabi says.

“Due to a shortage of skills, programmers are still very much in demand, but we are seeing more emphasis on user interface, usability, quality management and customer experience as we move more into cloud-based services and self-service business models, which is a combination of science and art,” he says.

One thing that hasn't changed is the need for extra tuition after leaving university. “Often, the talent needs to be nurtured and taught as universities do not have the appropriate experiential training required for today's complex business requirements,” Assabi says. “Today's fashion more than ever is about innovation, so you may not get everything you need from a new employee that fits the ever-changing job description.”

The image of the socially awkward programming guru is slowly disappearing.

Joe Brittz, Cell C

Adrian Schofield, president of the Computer Society South Africa, has been around long enough to see various trends come and go. So is IT now the domain of hot and sexy professionals? “I haven't written a program in a long time, so I'm probably neither,” he jokes.

“The fundamentals of computer programming are that you need to be technically competent and have imagination to find good and new solutions, but the fundamentals of an engineering approach are the ones that result in good software,” he says. “The environment in which programs are written has changed, in that the application space has given the opportunity to almost anybody to be able to generate something that other people will want to use, whether it's for business or amusement.”

That may make programming a more desirable career in America, but it hasn't changed anything here, Schofield says. “We are still struggling to get youngsters into the industry and to see programming as a fun thing to learn,” he says.

The Facebook fallacy

Young South Africans haven't fallen for the fallacy that IT is a great way to get rich. “It's only if you are the exception to the rule, like the Facebook story, and that's very rare,” Schofield says.

“The environment has changed since the boom days of the 80s and 90s, when programming was a high-demand job with a very good package and you were quite important in the corporate world. Since it became de-corporatised, the salaries aren't as attractive, and the demands of the job in the corporate world are much more than they used to be.”

We are still struggling to get youngsters into the industry and to see programming as a fun thing to learn.

Adrian Schofield, Computer Society South Africa

Mike Coetzee, a contractor working on infrastructure management with the University of Pretoria, says the university is seeing more engineering-type students ending up in IT. “That's not to say they're not geeks, but it's not necessarily your guy who sits in a dark room and is fed pizza under the door,” says Coetzee. “It's a broader spectrum of diverse training that end up in the IT field. We've even had a microbiologist ending up in this field.”

Coetzee agrees it's because IT has become all-pervasive and touches every discipline, so people from a broader spectrum of industries gain IT skills and select it as a career choice.

Coetzee was a programmer before he moved into management, and at one stage he tried to leave IT completely. He was wooed back by the university, which suggests that no matter where you come from, once you're in the IT industry, it may never let your talents go.

First published in the August 2012 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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