These days, hardly anyone ever talks about information technology without also mentioning "outsourcing." To hear some tell it, the good IT positions have gone the way of high-paying jobs at textile mills and assembly lines -- on to cheaper labor markets. The remaining programmers, developers, and system administrators all toil under the din of that giant sucking sound.
It didn't used to be this way. Not so long ago, IT was the Next Big Thing, the field everyone flocked to whether they were a computer-savvy high school graduate unsure of their next move or a middle-aged career-changer looking for a new beginning. I should know; I became an IT professional entirely by accident.
After my parents determined they were getting little out of their investment in my college tuition besides subsidizing my lifestyle of right-wing rabblerousing by day and partying like some deranged cross between Jimmy Buffet and Paris Hilton by night, I was compelled to join the New Information Economy as an $11-an-hour office temp. The temp agency shuffled me around from business to business to make copies, file documents and complete whatever tasks were deemed too monotonous and mind-numbing even for the Dilbert-like cubicle serfs who were the clients' permanent employees.
Then one day, I was assigned to work at a large marketing agency on the cusp of the high-tech boom. The company was upgrading its e-mail system and the script that was supposed to stamp the employees' accounts with the appropriate e-mail addresses had failed. My job was to populate all the addresses manually.
I REPORTED TO WORK in proper business attire, wearing the white shirt and red tie not quite reaching my belt buckle that is the uniform of young men trying to fit into corporate America but not quite making it. After I filled out my paperwork and was escorted to my desk, I was met by a gruff middle-aged man with a crew cut clad in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt.
"What's with the tie?" he barked. These were his first words to me. I stammered something about how my agency required us to show up dressed appropriately for business.
"Take that off," he demanded. "Even the CEO doesn't dress up that much. Just don't wear flip-flops or anything with holes." He ordered me to accompany him to a meeting that would serve as my introduction to the unconventional chain of command that characterizes IT management structures. The drill sergeant/fashion coordinator was to be my manager, but I would also simultaneously have to report to a project manager and a technical lead. Though I had no idea what any of it meant, I gathered that these were very important distinctions.
I was then given instructions on the monumental task that was to face me for the next two weeks. I spent hours in an office I shared with a jovial fellow who was there as a "consultant" -- although what he was actually consulted about I never was able to determine -- typing John.Smith@companyname.com hundreds of times a day. Upon completing my assignment a week early, the IT team decided to keep me on indefinitely.
My big break came when I began to sit next to the senior e-mail administrator, who was getting ready to move across country to start a new job. Simply because we shared an office, people began to assume I was his replacement. "So you are going to be taking over for Mike?" someone asked me. I had no idea what Mike's job actually entailed, but I did know that it paid better than data entry, so it would behoove me to find out.
"Yes," I replied. A transition from lowly temp to full-fledged engineer was begun.
THERE WERE STILL MINOR inconveniences and irritations. My desk was moved with an Office Space-like frequency and until I went full-time my computers were routinely confiscated and replaced with less functional models. But it was a small price to pay to stop making copies and acquire marketable skills.
As my computer-geek cred grew, I came to learn my experience was not unique. My mentor was a fifty-something father of two who had been a steel salesman. A heavyset man with a ruddy complexion who looked more like a South Boston Irish pol than a network administrator, he went into IT as steel industry jobs dried up.
"Outsourcing" didn't even mean quite the same thing as it does now. Back then, it was more likely to refer to a company hiring an outside firm to provide IT services. Often the contracted firm would rehire some of the techs who had already been working there in the internal IT department. Instead of watching their jobs go to India, I had friends who got pay raises out of having their departments outsourced.
IT's golden years weren't perfect, of course. Not everyone who moved into the field was able to pick up the required skills. Gifted technicians who worked hard to earn to become MCSEs were frustrated working alongside similarly compensated colleagues who should have been selling encyclopedias. I was lucky -- I learned more than a few tricks from better techs than me and I somehow managed not to break anything.
When I finally left IT after a five-year run, I was considered a seasoned veteran. I sat down with the people charged with recruiting my successor and looked over the requirements listed in my job description.
"I would have never qualified for this position," I said, and their jaws dropped.
Which is a pretty good indicator that one era has given way to the next. Those heady early days, when IT could be a ticket to a comfortable middle-class salary for anyone with a copy of TCP/IP for Dummies and not much else to recommend them, are but a memory. Even serious techies have begun to leave the field in search of more secure employment. But it was a hell of a ride while it lasted.
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