Shelf life of IT pros: The quest to stay technical
By Edwin Yapp January 21, 2013
- The wireless industry has a technical ceiling, not unlike that in the IT world
- The industry may be too dependent on vendors; engineers are not as hands-on as before
Periscope by Edwin Yapp
ONE of our regular columnists, Bernard Sia, and his commentary on "The five year life of an IT pro," got me thinking about some issues he raised, which were also addressed by another columnist, Colin Charles, who wrote a response.
While not strictly an IT professional myself, it did bring to mind my days as an engineer at one of today’s leading’s wireless telecommunication operators more than a dozen years ago.
Sia mentions the five-year threshold, in which he argues that this is when a techie would lament that they “can no longer do technology, the money is not there, and they’ve reached a ceiling and need to be a manager – more often than not, in broken English.”
I can totally relate to that as I experienced what Sia described myself – everything save the broken English that is – as I reached the five-year threshold in my professional career.
I remember thinking to myself that at five years, I was kind of like in a twilight zone – neither senior enough to be a bossy (read: expert at delegation) manager, but not junior enough to be a “probie,” doing menial tasks.
But the thing that bugged me most was that as a middle-level technical person, I found myself no longer doing the techie stuff, which would be done by engineers, but instead managing projects and people.
Don’t get me wrong – managing people and projects are necessary tasks. But this didn’t quite jive with me as a technical person, as I still wanted to deal with the technical bit but found that I couldn’t progress professionally -- the money’s not there, not as much as management at least.
So I found myself in a quandary and left to join a wireless engineering consultancy for better prospects but that too didn’t work out, and I finally turned my back on a technical career completely in favor of journalism, which doesn’t have all that great a professional career path (read: there is little or no money in journalism).
But alas, I digress, for that’s a story for another day.
The point is that past a certain point, engineers, at least in the wireless operator world, can only do so much technical stuff and in order to progress, management becomes the path to take.
I’m told today that there are technical ladders for engineers to climb so that they wouldn’t need to go the management path and perhaps that is a good idea to have going forward.
The second thing Sia mentioned that I could relate to was that there aren’t enough experienced engineers that are hands-on, something again that I believe is true of the wireless world today.
While I was working in technical tasks, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. GSM, that is Global System for Mobile Communications, was then a nascent technology and very few engineers in the day knew its capabilities and functions.
We had seniors who dabbled around with it, vendors who guided us with their experts but at the end of the day, it was us engineers who got down and dirty, trialing new features (such as 1x3x9 synthesizer frequency hopping) and testing new ideas (fiber repeaters), and being innovative about how to extend wireless coverage (antennas mounted on lamp post of taxi stands) in urban cities like Kuala Lumpur.
We got to learn as engineers, pushing the boundaries of innovation and new ideas. We made mistakes along the way, had regrets in some instances but through it all, we were never just “push button” engineers – we were in the trenches doing things.
Which sadly can’t be said about today’s breed of engineers. From what I’m told by my industry friends, current engineers are more technical monitors of what vendors do rather than technical people who are directing things, trialing new features and making the decisions.
Engineers today in some of the operators I know act merely as inspectors, checking up on what vendors do or don’t do, and rubber stamping what vendors suggest they do, rather than being the captain of the ship, deciding what must be done to the network.
Very few, if any, understand the technical details needed to run the network and hence lack the overall appreciation of the grander scheme of things in a complex wireless network.
I suppose I can’t totally blame this new breed of engineers for so much of today’s highly competitive wireless world is driven by KPIs (key performance indicators) set by operators on vendors, which means that vendors end up doing all the work.
Vendors, on the other hand, need to secure new business and would just dispatch an army of technical people to do the work for operators, thus reducing the need for operators to really get down to the nitty-gritty of things.
But should this be the case?
This syndrome may be why wireless engineers today lack the ability to be multi-disciplinary too, a third factor that Sia describes as the problem with a “dearth of integrative thinkers.”
Today, with the advent of 3G, HSPA and HSPA+, and now LTE (Long Term Evolution), my industry friends tell me that very few, if any, engineers know how to troubleshoot 2G (GSM) systems any longer because very few of them learn how to do it.
I suppose one could blame this on legacy as a catalyst for obsoleteness, but it does bring into the discussion as to whether this should be so. Should engineers no longer learn and be competent in legacy systems?
Sia’s point about being too specialized also brings to mind another challenge in today’s wireless engineering world. Again, I’m given to understand from industry friends that an individual’s KPIs are so tied up with his departmental KPIs that teams from different departments are no longer reaching out to help each other.
There are even examples when an engineer is saying to another, “This is where my responsibility ends, and yours begin, and so the problem is not mine, but yours.”
Again, should this be the case? Surely not.
At the end of the day, a technical professional needs not only to go into the depth of things but also have the breadth of skill sets to match that depth.
While much of what Sia wrote and what I myself experienced could be a product of the environment and industry we’re in, there is nothing to stop a techie at heart to continue being technical if he or she wants to.
After all, I do believe that nobody can dictate what we do in our careers and how we manage it and that it’s ultimately up to us to decide how we want to turn out.