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Interview: Young people shun IT careers

T Thibodeaux
Todd Thibodeaux

Todd Thibodeaux, president and chief executive of accreditations body CompTIA, has a couple of things on his mind.

One is security and some of the incomprehensible things people do about it. Longer term, though, he is concerned about the IT industry’s apparent lack of appeal as a career option for young people. As the son of an electrical and mechanical engineer he was clearly enthused by his parents’ interests and sees it as the industry’s obligation to attract new talent. And it’s not doing it.

“For some reason, over the last decade IT has really fallen off the radar for young people in terms of a career,” he told New Statesman Tech. “I think we had a hangover we didn’t really realise coming out of the dotcom bust.” It started with the parents, he suggests: they knew people who did badly in the IT field and who got laid off, jobs outsourced and slowly this filtered through to the kids.

Is it also possible that the novelty has worn off? Forty and fiftysomethings will remember when it was brand new and untarnished, people entering the workplace now won’t.

Thibodeaux takes a sober, factual view: “There are about 40m people working in the IT world at the moment, half of them working for IT companies. But increasingly you have logistics, transportation, hospitality and companies in other industries starting to define themselves as tech.” J. P. Morgan Chase now defines itself as an IT company, as does Hilton Hotels. “But we have this massive retirement wave coming, we need to replace about 15m people and we’re running about 20 per cent short of that in the pipeline.”

Changing environment

It’s not just about replacing people: the need for technologists is growing. Thibodeaux pointed out that we now have cloud infrastructure which didn’t exist a few years ago, as well as robotics infrastructure. The industry needs to reach out to more minorities, more women and generally make itself more appealing, he suggests. “We have all this pervasive technology taking over and we have a huge skills gap.”

He mentions minorities. In an industry that actually gets criticised, particularly in the US where offshoring has become an election issue, for outsourcing to India, what exactly is a minority in a location-neutral industry? “The idea that all the jobs are being outsourced was always a fallacy,” he explained. “Some companies outsource contact centre work but the majority of IT infrastructure jobs are in the country of their company, whether that’s the US, the UK or somewhere else in Europe. And it’s predominantly white and male.”

The first step needs to be getting more women in, he believes, but also killing some myths in which younger people believe. “First they think they’re going to sit behind a computer screen all day and not talk to anybody, and kids today just don’t want that kind of job.” They want to work with people and solve problems – they’re not convinced of the stability of the job. “Then there’s the belief that you have to be a genius in maths and science to work in IT. Nothing could be further from the truth; you don’t actually need a college degree to work in it. Some employers might hire people with degrees but you don’t need one,” he said. He reckons you can train someone into an IT role in eight weeks.

The other major issue is that young people in IT want to work for Facebook, Google or nobody, and the majority of the roles are in small to medium enterprises. “We’ve done a poor job of communicating,” he said.

CompTIA, a 30-odd year old group, is starting the fightback by working with Ideo, which designed the first computer mouse; it’s launching a programme speaking to younger people at the age of 14 and will work its way towards 20-year-olds. It will look at Instagram, Snapchat and other ways of getting to the younger talent. “It starts with understanding that audience and letting them tell us how we need to speak to them.”

Thibodeaux is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (Bachelor of Science, economics, 1988) and George Mason University (Master’s degree in economics, 1997); he remains a keen learner but he’s aware there are differences in the modern world. Young people don’t appear to be the geeks the fortysomething and fiftysomething market were; in an environment in which technology such as phones and gaming consoles are delivered as sealed units, people aren’t as used to taking things apart and adding things in as they were in the days of the earlier personal computers into which owners would add memory cards and faster chips. “The reality of the IT infrastructure is that you have to understand how it works and you have to be able to get into it,” he said.

Security

Recruiting the younger worker is a longer-term project and not something that’s going to be achieved overnight. The shorter-term issue concentrating CompTIA’s mind is the worldwide concern for Cyber security. “We have the world’s most widely adopted cyber credentials, it’s our second best selling qualification,” he explains. Countries are waking up to the threat: “Even just a year ago we would do tours of countries and other than the US and the UK they’d say, Cyber what? They get it now.” They also get the fact that they don’t have the personnel to deal with it.

As mobile devices proliferate, so do the points of entry into a network, which makes many networks more vulnerable than they were. “Anything connected to the network is vulnerable to hacking, for example connected cars,” he comments.

It’s not just sophisticated technology that goes wrong. Target in the US had a hack a couple of years ago in which thieves stole a small amount of money from every transaction; the fault was eventually traced to a consultant’s temporary account which had never been shut down.

CompTIA launched an experiment recently in which it left about 200 memory sticks lying around a handful of cities in the US. One thing never to do with a memory stick whose provenance you don’t know is to stick it into your computer – you have no idea what it’s going to bring with it.

The story almost finishes itself: “Not only did a shockingly large amount of people insert the sticks into their computer, in some cities about 25 per cent of people responded to the query that came up when they did so.” Welcome to virus-ville.

Other than security and recruiting young people, CompTIA is biding its time helping people to transition to a cloud-based world, looking into mobility and turning their entire business model around as a result. This is a substantial sea-change when some enterprises employ literally thousands of people.

In terms of daily activity at the moment, though, security remains the main concern. It’s not getting easier and the presence of unevenly-skilled companies isn’t helping. “Too many companies just roll the dice and hope for the best,” said Thibodeaux. “We had an experience recently with a company that had gone through a Cyber review with a supposedly reputable company. They got an A rating; they got another company to check and they said, your servers are 120,000 patches behind, you’re getting an F…”

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