The Quality of IT People Today

First of all let me start by saying that most IT people are loyal and dedicated employees that may have worked for your company for many years.  These people work hard within their skill set to support your company and help achieve your goals.  Unfortunately, in many business enterprises, you are dealing with an aging population of computer programmers in their mid 50’s to late 60’s.  While there is nothing wrong with age what is wrong is the fact that you probably have few if any young people in their 20’s or 30’s working for you, particularly in the area of COBOL or RPG language development. 

In the early days of computing, companies like IBM, NCR, Boroughs, and others provided software engineers who wrote computer programs for their customers computers which were sold as accounting machines to the CFO.  In the 1970’s demand for computers grew as well as the role of the computer in modern business.  The computer moved outside the accounting department and began to participate in all aspects of your business.  The demand for skilled programmers grew rapidly.  New languages like COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) and RPG (Report Generation Language) were developed and implemented to enable a larger population of people to learn to program computers and fill a demand as computer usage expanded.

Both COBOL & RPG were taught in junior colleges.  Major universities began teaching the COBOL language and private schools opened often with government funding to train computer programmers for great new jobs.  RPG on the other hand was easier to learn and was taught by IBM System Engineers in 1 to 2 week classes conducted on IBM customer sites.

In both cases the vast majority of new programmers were former blue collar workers ranging from construction workers to file clerks, to people working on the loading dock of many companies.  It was an 8 to 5, Monday through Friday office job with much better compensation.  

The folks that you hired or trained as programmers worked hard with what they were taught, but the vast majority stayed focused only on the original language they had been taught. There were some exceptions who embraced computer technology and learned new skills in a constantly changing world, but the vast majority did not.  Most RPG programmers know only RPG and nothing else.  Likewise for many COBOL programmers. 

Over the past 10 to 15 years there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of new RPG or COBOL programmers entering the job market.  Today COBOL programmers represent less than 1% of the total computer population and RPG is about .1% (1/10th of 1%). It is becoming increasingly more difficult to hire replacements and many of your staff is reaching retirement age.  Total compensation of salary plus benefits are well in excess of $100,000 per year.  

Sadly, you are tying up vast sums of your IT budget on people that are becoming less and less productive.  Additionally, with the advent of business to business computing via the Internet, sophisticated web sites, and modern technologies such as tablets, smart phones, and now even the potential for Google Glasses you need people with new skills capable of insuring your meet new and emerging business requirements with new technologies.  

Walmart refuses to do business with supplier that are not capable of allowing Walmart’s computers to access the vendors ordering system via web services that Walmart has defined to obtain pricing and availability data for products sold by the vendor and place orders electronically.  These are not appropriate applications for COBOL or RPG.

Additionally, the world of IT has changed.  There are many languages in use today there are many additional skills that no one developer can posses.  Many companies including some of the largest have found that it is better to outsource many of the IT positions that were once salaried employees and engage consultants (outsourced contractors) on a project by project basis and contract with outsourcing agencies with performance based agreements for support services.  

One major international company that I worked with made this transition by first transferring its own employees to a major outsourcing vendor and then migrated to a project centric labor model.  Note that when I say outsourcing, I do not necessarily mean “offshore workers from Indian, China, or other countries”.  Outsourced workers could be from your own city and work on your premises.  The key is they only work for the duration of a project and provide the skills required for specific projects.  

Next time I will talk about how to effectively manage an outsourced labor force. 

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