The five-year shelf life of an IT pro

  • Very few engineers who are hands-on; very few IT pros who can connect the dots
  • We’re in danger of losing skilled pros, yet are unable to compete on cheap labor

The five-year shelf life of an IT proOF late, I’ve been on an interviewing spree -- not a good start to the year considering that I’ve already met seven people and it is only early January.
I usually conduct an average of 50 face-to-face interviews per year and three times that many via phone screening and about 10 times that from filtering résumés. If the trend holds, I may end the year going through 2,520 résumés (7 face to face x 3 phone interviews x 10 résumés x 12 months).
I’ve also been maintaining roughly that average since I started looking for resources back in 2000; that sums up to approximately 30,000 résumés viewed (12 years x 2,500 résumés per year). Humbly, it is a pretty good sample to “generalize” my findings about IT professionals in Malaysia.
Yes, I have been warned about the pitfalls of generalization, but somebody has got to put it out there. So before I proceed, read with caution and by all means, I would love to hear from Digital News Asia readers on their own findings.
1) An army of line managers
It is near impossible for me to find experienced engineers who are still hands-on. They are either managers or have gone into planning, coordinative and advisory activities.
This is all good. Unfortunately, IT companies require technical leaders who can still code, reconfigure, install, perform root cause analyses, dissect and interpret cryptic error logs in order to maintain the technology, let alone innovate from it.
The five-year shelf life of an IT pro2) An army of operators
There has been a notable side-effect when the services sector liberalized in 2009. Hosts of multinationals have created IT operations centers in Malaysia and economically, we are generating citizens who earn between RM3,000 to RM5,000 a month.
[RM1 = US$0.33]
At the high end, they are within the boundaries of a developed nation income (> US$15,000 per capita per year). However, the real question is, whether an army of operators is a competitive outcome for Malaysia – they will not be cheap forever, and when they’re fired, what will they do?
3) A dearth of integrative thinkers
Integrative thinking is the ability to connect the dots, to understand end-to-end processes and to relate causality with effect. With multinationals divvying up job roles and specializations, I often come across networking experts who can only handle wide area networks (WANs), and if I require a firewall guy, I need another candidate.
Suffice to say, companies require an army of network engineers to do a single integrative task.
Multinationals get away with this because they hire operators as per point two; cheap, low-level, highly functionalized resources by funnelling higher value tasks, back to research headquarters in China, India or their country of origin.
Now, what happens is the inability to see the big picture: The IT pro is not even able to fathom the technological big picture, relating technology to business outcomes.
The sum of all fears
By 2016, the Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) bloc will be an open market for skilled labor. That means a flurry of migratory activities – skilled Malaysians heading off to Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia, while cheaper operator level resources will come into Malaysia and outbid local operators.
On paper this is great, because multinationals will still stay with us as they can maintain their low-cost base, but we cannot compete in a global scale if:

a) There are no comparative advantage between nations

What’s the difference between a service desk in Malaysia versus one in the Philippines? Surely Asean cannot be a nation of service desk engineers and L1 operators (L1 operators check for blinking lights, loose cables, abandoned operating system services etc., but they do not necessarily need to know why).

b) There are no unique, value adding innovations

To be more specific, we need more Silverlakes, we need the heydays of Creative Technologies; and in order to create these companies, there needs to be higher order technical resources with in-depth knowledge of technology honed through years of blood, sweat and geekiness, Steve Jobs-like perfectionism and Germany’s SAP designer’s breadth of thinking.

The global economy works when there is an efficient flow of scare resource from Point A to Point B. We buy iPhones for the very same reason why developed nations buy our service desk jobs.
We’re Point A for now, but once we become “expensive,” Point A will be anyone who can do the same task cheaper, better and more holistically.
The worst of the findings are technical personnel, usually with around five years of experience, lamenting that they can no longer do technology; the money is not there, they’ve reached a ceiling and need to be a manager – more often than not, in broken English.
It sort of reminds me of the shelf life of most canned food; it goes through rapid processing, gets cooked, salted, then preserved. It may look good on the outside, but it’s on the verge of expiring.
So I wonder, whose fault is this?
Personally, I don’t blame the Government at all because as far as economic results are concerned, they are met. I just wish for longer-term thinking. That leaves the Malaysian IT businesses, and last but not least, the individual.
So what do you say?
Bernard Sia is head of strategy at Mesiniaga Alliances Sdn Bhd. His opinions here do not necessarily reflect the views of Mesiniaga.
Previous Installments:
Malaysian systems integrators under siege
Social banking with CIMB OctoPay 
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