Tag Archives: Business

Should the Technical FTE Role be Dead?

At one point in our history, it was commonplace for a worker to join a company upon leaving school and stay with them until retirement. There was a perceived loyalty between employer and employee.

Life was good … or was it?

Did the employer really care about the educational or professional “growth” of the employee? Conversely, did the employee continue to bring new ideas and energy to the workplace after 20 years on the job?

As the Baby Boomers (post WW-II babies) entered the workforce in the 70s, jobs were plentiful. “Job hopping” became a common term as Silicon Valley companies competed for skilled laborers. The recession of the early ’80s caused many of those workers to search for the “secure” corporate work-life of their parents, only to look again for that “brass ring” as the economic carousel took another spin around with the tech/Dot-com boom of the 90s.

Now, as recovery begins again, should technology workers be looking for the “security” of a long-term, single employer job? Should employers look to beef up their internal workforce again or drive their business with contractors?

For the employer, the positive financial tipping point for the FTE option appears to lie somewhere during or after the third year of employment. An excellent financial analysis of several employment scenarios was produced in 2009 by a team at Greythorn, a subsidiary of the FiveTen Group, an international recruiting/contracting firm. A link to the associated slide presentation is provided here.

For the worker, the financial benefits of contracting depend largely on the skills of the individual and the business choices he or she makes along the way. The keys to contractor success are:

  1. have something to sell, i.e. a skill that is in demand,
  2. set the price appropriate to quality/skill level and market demand, and
  3. market the deliverable well.

Being a successful contractor is not rocket science. It “just” requires effort.

Beyond the financials, the real question is: Should the long term, full-time employee (FTE) model be replaced by shorter-term IT workers?

The answer may lie buried somewhere between the speed of technology change and the inability of managers to properly project their needs. Certainly, in a stable work industry, managers can assess attrition and train internal staff to fill those empty positions and hire new employees into “entry-level” positions. Traditional, predictable, effective.

As the speed of technology change increases, it becomes more difficult to project needs several years in advance. The window to build expert skill levels within the internal resource pool decreases. Especially when “bottom line” costs are scrutinized, training seems to be an easy choice for managers to move into “next year’s budget”. Failure to invest in training at the right time, leaves an employer few options. They have to depend on contractors.

The workers, on the other hand, bear a significant responsibility for their own fate. Train, study and be aware of technology/industry demands or become unemployed. While the cause-and-effect is obvious, it’s commonly ignored. It’s not a life-lesson taught in high schools or undergraduate degree programs, but it should be. It is the worker’s responsibility to stay current with skills that are in demand. Education is not something that ends in your early 20s. Education a life-long process.

The manager may be asleep-at-the-switch, but the worker, who will be impacted most with a layoff, must push for the technical training to stay current and to be prepared for “the next big thing”. That training might be on-the-job (e.g. a “stretch” work assignment), outside reading/study or a volunteer work effort.

Similarly, contractors and short-duration workers must include training and/or growth work placements to continually enhance their marketability.

Who benefits from this employment model shift?

The employer benefits with a more nimble, up-to-date technology work force. The worker benefits by taking personal responsibility for his or her continuing technology education.

So what happens to the Tech FTE?

Some technical long term employees include management skills in their training. They move up and out of the technical resource pool. Others, especially those who fail to stay current, move to the dead-end, but, at the time, necessary jobs that all companies seem to have.

The risk that many companies and public agencies face is related to the long-term employees, who fail to continue their education/training but continue to “occupy” their desks. Some are retained because they possess specific subject matter knowledge about the installed systems. Others maintain their grip on their chairs by doing just what is required to get by. While I am a strong supporter of unions and their role in protecting worker rights, I am not a supporter of a seniority system that protects poor performance.

Say Good-Bye 

In my opinion, it’s time to be realistic. The technical FTE position is not good for the employer or for the worker. It builds a false expectation of stability within the tech workforce and, to paraphrase Karl Marx, the Tech FTE role “is the opiate of the [tech] masses”.

Business needs to acknowledge their inability to maintain long-standing technical work forces and be honest with their employees,

Stay current or you will be gone!

Harsh words, but they are a reality.

Tech workers need to step up to the plate, turn off the TV and continue their education/training. They need to stop blaming immigrants and younger workers for their employment problems. With age can come perspective, but perspective without current knowledge is of little value.

Today’s tech workers need to build their own futures and not look to others to do it for them.

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Background Materials / Blog Postings

“Those Job-Hopping Baby Boomers”, by Monika Hamori, Sept 2010, http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/09/job_hopping_do_boomers_and_mil.html

Cost Analysis … The Real Costs of Contractors versus Full Time Employees, A Greythorn White Paper (part of the Five Ten Group),  1Q 2009, http://www.slideshare.net/rprosio/REAL-Costs-of-Contractors-1075420

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5 Steps to Becoming a Volunteneur

Entrepreneur + Volunteer = Volunteneur

There is no question that the World, the United States, your City has problems. Some are Big Problems; some are Small Problems.

So what are YOU doing about them … Today?

Complain to City Hall!

“Somebody should do something!” While being incensed about a problem  may have been enough to get some action in the past, it’s just not an effective course of action today. Tax revenues down. Public services are being cut. Finding more than a sympathetic ear might be difficult to do.

Volunteer to Help

Now you’ve got the idea! “If the City is short on resources, then I could volunteer to help. But what’s the plan? Can I realistically work as an unpaid volunteer for the City … addressing the problem that is bothering me the most today?” It’s possible, but unlikely.

Perhaps you could join others as a volunteer in their private sector initiative…

Strength in numbers! More hands make work light! Excellent!

There are numerous organizations that you could join. Perhaps one of them addresses your specific complaint/problem and you could get some muscle behind the solution.

But what if there isn’t someone or some organization that is addressing your particular issue? What if your problem is too small to be on someone else’s priority list but still too big for you to ignore?

Become a Volunteneur! 

“A what?” We all have an idea of what an “entrepreneur” is … it’s someone who sees a problem (or an opportunity), collects various resources/processes and (with a lot of hard work) creates a solution or product. Sometimes the solutions or products are a little unconventional. Sometimes they don’t work as planned. But when they work, the entrepreneur is a huge success!

As a “volunteer”, you show up somewhere and someone hands you a shovel or a paint brush or a soup ladle and you get to work. You become one of the rowers on someone else’s galley. If the planning was good (the galley is pointed the right direction) and the resources adequate (there are enough rowers), the initiative is a success.  There is nothing wrong with being a volunteer, but you rarely get to select the target problem or the solution.

Entrepreneur + Volunteer = Volunteneur

Part entrepreneur, part volunteer, a volunteneur looks at a problem from the perspective of a business owner who must solve it, given the available resources and constraints. No one else is going to step up and “fix” what’s broken, so YOU have to take charge.

Five Steps to Becoming a Successful Volunteneur

1. Identify / Define the Problem

This is also known as requirements definition. Document all of the problem components. (Write this down.) If you can’t define the problem, your success at solving it is greatly diminished.

2. Consider your Available Resources, Constraints and Problem Details

If you don’t know what you have available to you, you’re likely to overlook solution options or try to build something that can’t be completed. The “problem details” would include the “root causes” and any “triggering conditions”.

3. Look for Solution Options

This is the brainstorming session. No solution is too wild or too impractical. Don’t worry about the completeness of any single solution option. Several solution options might work better when combined.  This exercise often yields additional constraints or problem definition details.

4. Assess / Compare the Solution Options … Build a Plan

Identify the resource “costs” of each solution. Consider the pro’s and con’s, along with their potentials for success. Consider solution option combinations that might enhance each other. Select optimal solution(s), build implementation plan. Establish success metrics.

5. Execute the Solution Plan

Just because this is an unpaid effort, doesn’t mean that it will require less management. Use your business/project management skills to track work according to plan. Encourage your team along the way. Monitor success during and after implementation. Modify solution, as required, to improve the outcome. 

Volunteneurism — It’s All About Getting It Done

In business, project structure is commonplace. In civic or volunteer environments, good ideas can become lost long before the problem is properly defined. It’s so much easier to complain than to do. As a volunteneur, bring your business (get it done) expertise with you and get folks moved off that first square.

Step up, define the problem, identify your resources/constraints/details and get solution options on the table for discussion. Solution discussions can build a sense of decision ownership for volunteers, but keep them moving. Combine and eliminate options to end up with that single direction that you can all pull toward together.

People willing to help with projects that look successful. They just need a leader to get them started and a manager to help them be successful.

Don’t leave your expertise at the office. Share your coordination and management skills. You may find that the rewards from your community work far exceed those from your paycheck.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

While some say that Rolling Stones‘ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a song about love, politics and drugs, I understand that it is the lyric ballad of a 1960s project manager. (Is it true that Mick Jagger is still PMI certified?)

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As a Project Manager, I am commonly provided a high-level project scope and expected to “flesh out” the requirements. While this is not an unreasonable request, as an IT Consultant, my role also includes a consultative / Socratic component surrounding scope definition.

You can’t always get what you want

In a time of tight budgets and low, internal resource, availability, not everything is practical, much less possible. Before heading down the road of requirements gathering, I make a point of performing a “sanity check” related to the business case behind a project initiation request.

That business case doesn’t have to be a formal, 10-page, single-spaced document, but it does need to exist in some tangible format. If the business case exists only as words spoken across a conference room table, then the first task of the PM should be to translate those words into writing. (“If you can’t print it, it isn’t true” or so my first IT manager used to say.) The business case includes functional description of the project and why its delivery is important to the business. It provides the basis for expending funds. In PMI terms, the business case becomes one of the source documents used to create the Project Charter.

Documenting the initiating business case, even if only a single page effort, solidifies the primary goals of a project and often, an initial description of they might be accomplished. It provides a project manager, who might later be “up to his elbows in alligators” a better understanding of “why we began to drain the swamp” in the first place.

But if you try sometimes you just might find

The business case documentation process may allow a review of solution options that had been previously overlooked. (This is where the “consulting” comes into play …) How many times have you looked at a problem and quickly convinced yourself of the answer, only to find out later that there had been a much better solution available to you had you just taken the time to consider the options.

Understanding (or documenting) a project’s business case may provide the PM and the requesting business unit with just such an opportunity. Instead of taking a build-it-now-and-ask-questions-later approach, ask those “Why?” and “Why not” questions before significant project funds have been spent. Even if you just hold a brainstorming session with your own team, the process may yield unexpected and positive results. Those results can then be shared with the project sponsor and the requesting business unit in a low-key manner. Remember, a project concept usually is somebody’s “child” and no one likes it when their child is called “ugly”, even in a well-intended manner.

You get what you need

The end result of this project process is that the sponsor gets what she or he needs. That might be the original scope / approach or it might an approach that delivers the same results but in a more effective manner. The important point is that the project initiation process now includes a business case that explains “Why”.

Both the project’s sponsor and the project manager “get what <they> need …

[… and, no, Sir Michael Philip “Mick” Jagger does not hold an active PMI-certification, I checked.]

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The song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, was originally performed by The Rolling Stones and released in their 1969 album Let It Bleed. It was written primarily by Mick Jagger with assistance from Keith Richards. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Can%27t_Always_Get_What_You_Want]

I got a degree, so where’s my job?

Like many parents, I told my kids, “Study hard, go to college, pick a technical course of study and you’ll get a good job.” While that direction may have been enough in the 1980’s or 90’s, today you need to add, “Get some work experience.” In the Portland, Oregon, area, over 80% of the job openings, requiring a 2- or 4-year degree, also require previous experience.

OK, so how do you get a job to get experience if most of the jobs require experience? Think chicken-before-egg or if you’re my age, Catch-22.

This circular logic problem is a wonderful life-example for your 20-something kids, but by that time in their lives they are a little tired of hearing about life lessons. They want answers. After some struggle, they may even look to you for help. So where do you turn?

  • Internships are often a good place to gain basic levels of experience. Companies often open up summer work internships to help with heavy-lifting projects (filing, relocations, equipment swaps, etc.) that don’t require much training or expertise. Unfortunately, the intern rarely learns much beyond show-up-on-time or how-to-follow-instructions and the typical duration, 3 to 4 months, is really not enough to help land a good job.
  • Know someone who can vouch for their abilities as quick learners. A best friend’s father or mother may be helpful, especially if either is an IT manager. They might have problems with hiring their own kids, but bringing in a sharp, energetic college grad is often a plus. Unfortunately, the odds are so small of that happening that they aren’t something to depend on.

Is there a better answer?

An apprenticeship program for IT grads. Twenty years ago, these programs were common in medium-to-large consulting companies. College grads would join a consulting firm and receive several weeks of subject-specific training. If they survived that shake-out period, they would be assigned to work on a project under the direct guidance of a senior staff member. Through a combination of observation and weekly reviews, the new hire would learn a professional style and delivery, while actively contributing on a project at a client site.

This system worked well. The clients were charged a reduced rate for the “junior consultants” and the senior staff resource provided both mentorship to the “apprentices” and assurance of quality delivery to the clients.

Where are these programs today?

With the exception of a few firms, they are largely gone. They disappeared in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with the boom of the dot-com era (demand for any talent regardless of experience) and the bust that followed. In the 2000’s, budgets were tight and job openings were few. Little energy was expended on training new workers for jobs that could be filled by qualified (often over-qualified) resources.

Today, many of these entry-level jobs are going unfilled, going to foreign workers holding H-1B visas or they are being outsourced to companies overseas.

There are, however, a few new IT apprenticeship programs starting up in the Portland area. One such initiative, Protégé Builder, is presented by a Portland consulting company, ieSolutions. It is built on a software testing framework as its core technology. I’m told that another company is operating a similar program, built on Java programmer staffing.

While these IT apprenticeship programs are small today, they hold hope for the future. Portland is rebuilding and reclaiming jobs for its community.