Gartner on managing your IT career

At our all-hands team meeting on Thursday, we were lucky enough to have a talk by Diane Morello, who is a Fellow at Gartner. She spoke to us about managing a career in the IT industry and the pressures on IT professionals. It was a fascinating talk that inspired me to scribble furiously in a notebook[1]… so I thought I’d comment on one or two points here.

Amongst the pressures that Diane mentioned was the increasing push of consumer IT. I guess this takes many forms – computing needs to be simpler, but also there are more ways for the office to reach us (Blackberries etc.). This particular point made me think of a book that I’ve just started reading thanks to a recommendation from Kim on her recent trip to HursleyEveryware by Adam Greenfield. I may write a fuller entry on this subject in time, but the basic premise here is about the emergence of pervasive devices, the increasing irrelevance of the PC, and the release of information. Will the IT industry continue to be relevant? One view might be that bigger brains and more organisation and effort is required on the pure IT side to keep this stuff business-oriented, while another might be that as the trend continues, IT people will melt into business roles more easily. It was just an interesting connection that jumped to mind.

One of the concepts that was mentioned was the idea of the difference between a Specialist, a Generalist, and the more in-demand individual somewhere in the middle – the Versatilist. Diane came up with this idea, and it was later adopted by Thomas Friedman in The World Is Flat (which I really, really must read now). This is a multidisciplinary expert who is not shallow in lots of areas like a generalist, but deep skill in a variety of areas backed up with expertise in a number of roles. Although these individuals should be in demand, my view is that often businesses are looking for the deep skill and concentration in a particular area. Therefore, they struggle to either create jobs that enable them to fulfil the variety of roles that they could flourish in; or have no means of recognising the contributions of versatilists across a range of areas once they are in a particular business.
(incidentally, yesterday I had a conversation with someone who had been at the same talk on Thursday and failed to see the difference between a generalist and a versatilist – it was obvious to me, but maybe some people didn’t get it)

Social computing felt like something of an addendum in the talk, which was a shame. One of the core points (in my opinion) was that collaborative working and building a strong network across both business and IT is key to building a strong versatilist. Social computing and the software that supports it – blogs, wikis and so forth – can be key to empowering the workforce. I know that my ability to work collaboratively across IBM has been transformed by our internal blogging network, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m such a strong advocate of software like Lotus Connections. During the break I mentioned to Diane just how powerful a transformation blogging has had on my ability to work across the organisation. In the talk she’d said that a versatilist has a very strong web that has been built across an organisation, and that connections and communities are crucial – I agree – and social networking is front and centre of the trend to build those communities – and the youngsters getting started with MySpace today are going to expect similar tools within the enterprise when they get there. Diane mentioned communities of practice and communities of interest being key ways of building connections, and we have those at IBM – but in reality I think even stronger connections and contacts can be built out even wider, as well as those that form within a relatively small pool of like-minded people represented by a community of interest.

There was also a comment about businesses treating information as a competitive asset – again it made me think of Connections – “making sense of unstructured data to support people” – well there was another link to blogs, wikis, XML and RSS. Diane also made the statement that “we are dealing with top-down information”, which made me wonder, should we be? Are we really? Another book that urgently needs to go on my reading list is Wikinomics.

Finally, given our current focus on virtual worlds, I wondered how business in virtual worlds would impact the ability to manage a career in the context of the pressures that Diane was mentioning. What is the impact of “virtual business” on careers in the IT industry?

I still haven’t exhausted my notes here, but I realise that a lot of what I’ve typed is disconnected from the context of the original talk, so it is getting increasingly fragmentary – I’ll stop at this point.

It was great to be able to talk to Diane briefly over lunch to discuss a few of the points I’d thought of – there were more that I didn’t have a chance to cover. Overall I think there are some really intriguing things going on in the industry and in society in general. It was good to have Diane along for the day and to hear her views.

[1] as a blogger and someone who tries to follow industry trends, one of the things I’ve been finding increasingly is that when I hear a talk, my brain is firing off all kinds of connections to books, web articles, blog entries… it’s almost as if my mind is planning the links for the next blog entry πŸ™‚
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4 responses to “Gartner on managing your IT career

  1. Thanks for those notes Andy, sounds like Diane gave a great talk.

    I like the description of a Versatilist, it fills a gap in the traditional thought of job roles within IT firms at least. I have often struggled to describe myself in terms of a job role, my current title Emerging Technology Specialist is about as close as I have come to an accurate summary of my day to day skills.

    I resent in some ways the need to be pigeon holed into any category of technology at work and the need to concentrate solely on one field of expertise. Most of the great technologists I know are highly skilled in multiple areas and capable of taking on anything you throw at them.

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  2. I think, Rob, it’s not so much a negative “being pigeonholed as” as a more positive “what I’m known for” reputation thing. So I’d be perfectly happy to be known for being “a mainframe performance guru” *so long as it was acknowledged I had a lot of other strings to my bow.
    *Which I hope is what I’m known for. πŸ™‚

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  3. The pidgeon holing is often used to control and help people who dont understand the breadth of what individuals do try and get a handle on it.
    Its sort of a problem with the human brain in needed to understand something is like something else I think.
    So many times I have been asked what I do. Over the years I have added strings as you all have πŸ™‚ but the base is that I am a versatilist.
    It is also possible to be good at lots of things. As we find with Rob πŸ™‚ he is good at everything he has a go at.
    Check out the starfish and spider leaderless organizations book

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  4. Another book for the reading list / wishlist.

    So there was also a distinction between jobs, and roles. Roles can span multiple jobs. Jobs are what an organisation says you do – the description. Roles are more flexible. One of the people I’ve met through Roo recently had been fortunate enough to turn her unofficial set of roles into a job, but the point from this talk is that once that happens, you start to be measured on the job… I think many of us think of ourselves as fulfilling multiple roles, so it all made sense really, but it is hard to describe in organisational terms.

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