Careers: Ride the Outsourcing Wave

Outsourcing has brought its share of challenges already, but even more are on the horizon. From high-level manager to low-level packet pusher, here are some things to think about.

By Charlie Schluting | Posted Aug 25, 2006
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At least some components of IT services are frequently delegated offshore by many companies. Rising salaries in India will stifle current outsourcing initiatives, but not by a significant amount. Let’s take a look at what can be outsourced, and what employees should focus on in order to remain competitive in the IT world.

Both questions depend a great deal on the industry. Financial institutions need talented backend server administrators and storage administrators. The government sector doesn’t, they mostly need people that can support workstations. But to grossly generalize things, across the board there seem to be a few positions that are hot, and a few that are cooling off. Figuring out what services can be outsourced, whether that be temporary contracts or complete outsourcing, is a difficult and ongoing endeavor.

To decide whether you should hire (or keep) a full staff, more than the costs should to be accounted for. It is easy to assume that administrators are all competent, but sadly that’s not the case. To get the very best people for a competitive advantage, you must be willing to pay above the market salary for the important positions. Even the mid- to junior-level positions need to be funded generously, or you will risk getting less than desirable competency levels.

Making the business case for increasing salaries isn’t always successful. Coupling increased salary proposals with outsourcing ideas to cut the non-essential costs is normally met with a willingness to listen.

In the middle of talking about outsourced services, why would we mention that employees need to be given decent pay? It’s simple. More services being contracted out means more upset employees, especially mid-level administrators. They will realize that ascending to a higher position means a management track, because senior-level administrators aren’t going to be as common in the future. Every senior administrator will have an extreme expertise in his area, and perform managerial roles as well. They will also be settled into their positions, and very unlikely to leave.

For example, industry consensus seems to hold that Business Continuance and Disaster Recovery will begin to get outsourced more frequently. An up and coming sysadmin who focuses on data storage and backups would be well served to take on more “data management” duties. Storage administration, Information Lifecycle Management, and the like are positions that, again, require intimate knowledge of the business. Those positions aren’t easily outsourced, and most companies wouldn’t want to. To survive, current employees must take on increasing responsibilities and higher-level positions. This doesn’t always mean management, but all roads converge in a management cul-de-sac, like it or not.

From the business perspective, hiring more employees versus outsourcing is an interesting decision. The morale issue, mentioned earlier, is too often ignored. Companies with the strongest IT force excel at comforting their employees. The employees feel secure in knowing that they aren’t going to arrive at work someday to find their office packed up. The worst thing an IT organization can lose is internal knowledge, resulting in a need to start from scratch. Starting from scratch means thousands of hours of lost productivity, and saving a few dollars just isn’t worth that.

The ideal mix, if a company is hell-bent on outsourcing, is to outsource the mundane, and let the existing senior administrators supervise it. If there happen to be junior administrators left on staff, their morale and motivation levels don’t impact the business nearly as much as a senior administrator’s could.

The IT world is picking up steam again, but it will never be as great as the late nineties. Administrators can adapt in one of two ways: settle into a senior position at a stable company, or become management. Like it or not, those are really the only two options.

In the increasingly global economy, lower-skill jobs are (still) moving toward cheaper labor. India’s salaries are increasing, but other countries are waiting, poised with job applications. IT administrators should never feel secure just idly pressing buttons and punching the clock. The IT world doesn’t work like that; successful administrators learn many new things on a daily basis.

Architects, designers, managers, and skilled engineers will be the only face of IT on future payrolls.

Linux sysadmins who aren’t running the big iron servers companies depend on are especially at risk. Windows servers and user environment administrators are definitely at risk. People with solid Solaris and AIX skills are in the thick of running critical services, and aren’t quite as disposable. Both are at risk, though. Even network engineers, or packet pushers, are at risk of being outsourced. The lower paying positions for people who simply turn on new network connections around the office are more likely to remain than the mid-level network engineers’ positions. The management of application or Web servers, and even network gear, is not out of the offshore realm. Something to think about, when deciding how much you need to adapt.

Businesses don’t adapt; they are prompting these changes. The businesses that would like to follow suit and begin lowering IT costs, however, should not forget the importance of having seasoned and dedicated staff remain.

Many companies see IT as a cost center, but some recognize the competitive advantage that a functioning IT organization can bring. There is no single answer for every company, but one thing is certain: IT is more important than many companies credit.

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