Cherry-picking the jobs

29 Jan 2004

To talk of a general though tentative recovery in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector in the coming year is to hide the fact that some areas will recover well while others will not recover at all. Likewise, the market for IT professionals will be buoyant or totally flat, depending on the industry sector you are talking about.

So what is the best guess for which sectors are set to bounce back strongly this year? Two stand out in particular, according to Brendan Butler, director of IBEC-affiliated technology sector lobby group ICT Ireland. The first is internet security. “We would see it as a critical area and one that Ireland would be reasonably well positioned to take advantage of. Some big players such as Symantec are already well established here,” he points out. The second cluster of activity will be around what he calls the “Google effect” — spin-off operations from the hugely successful internet search company that established operations in Dublin last year. There are even rumours that another internet big gun, Amazon, is currently appraising Ireland as the possible hub for its European operations. Counterbalancing the recovery of these two sectors will be a continued malaise within the telecoms sector, which is “still in the valley at the moment”, he feels.

Although IT spending is bound to increase in certain areas — PC desktop upgrade projects are long overdue in many organisations for example — IT managers are likely to continue to be as parsimonious as in recent years. Grandiose IT projects are a definite no-no; tightly planned and budgeted undertakings that deliver real business benefit will be the order of the day. Guaranteeing this will be the fact that final sign-off for IT decisions in many organisations rests not with the IT manager-director but with the head of finance or even chief executive. Bank of Ireland’s decision last year to hand over the management of its entire IT infrastructure to Hewlett-Packard showed that even hugely profitable businesses are looking to cut their IT overhead. It is not so long ago that permanent in-house IT positions were seen as two-a-penny and for the unambitious. Not any more.

The newly thrifty attitudes of IT buyers and users have obvious implications for IT professionals looking to make their next career move: no longer are the streets of Silicon Valley (or the Irish Financial Services Centre for that matter) paved with gold. But neither is the market in terminal decline: there are still plenty of opportunities for those who do their homework on where openings lie.

Take Microsoft, for instance, and its seemingly iron grip on the PC desktop. It’s not rocket science to conclude that professionals who base their skills around the Microsoft cluster of technologies from .Net to Windows won’t be left high and dry. Likewise, in the networking area, technologies such as voice over internet protocol and wireless networking are gaining a permanent foothold in the marketplace. Become an accredited Cisco or Nokia engineer and you can’t go too far wrong. Moreover, some technologies that were on a ‘go slow’ not too long ago are coming back into favour again. For example, the demand for enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems — the powerful software from the likes of Oracle and SAP that runs the end-to-end operations of many large organisations — is reportedly on the rise with a large number of government departments having purchased or about to purchase ERP systems. Such projects will require the services of a range of IT professionals from database administrators and business intelligence specialists to the so-called ‘functional consultants’ who lead and manage such projects.

If there is one class of IT professional that is most threatened by today’s business environment it is the straightforward programmer. The growing availability of inexpensive offshore software skills is ensuring this is the case. In general, there is a growing sense that the Irish market cannot support ‘commodity’ IT skills anymore and that specialist skills will be the norm. John Mullen, technical director at Version 1 Software, a rapidly growing IT consultancy, sees the overseas threat as very real.

“Software development is beginning to show a trend towards offshoring. People need to be looking at gaining skills that are customer facing and at higher design [architecture] levels. The day of the software house of 50 programmers is drifting away. As an IT community, we need to move up the food chain,” he says.

For Mullen, as for many other IT employers, flexibility is the key to success in today’s fast-changing business world. “We’re looking for people who can turn their hand to a large number of things and can move between different projects as the market dictates,” he explains.

By Brian Skelly