Why tech careers need a makeover, fast!

If we’re ever going to correct the confounding imbalance between tech jobs and tech job-seekers, we have to up our game.

You’d think that American college students would be banging down the doors to major in software engineering, data science, or information technology.

They aren’t, relatively speaking.

To those of us in the technology field, the statistics should be stunning, and not in a good way: computer science majors, engineering majors, and biology majors COMBINED don’t come close to the number of humanities majors who graduate every year. Let’s face it, fellow techies: ours isn’t a popular field, especially in light of the lure of high compensation, low stress, and great work-life balance. In this golden age of technology, where the “T” in STEM careers should be the hottest letter of the quartet, computer science is the 16th most popular college major, and Information Technology is number 21.

My anecdotal experience bears this out: I’ve interviewed hundreds of folks for tech jobs whose initial dream job was in international affairs, political science, psychology, or journalism. Even more interesting, many of these folks encounter some life event or opportunity after graduation that forces them into the technology field (you’re welcome). To help understand their perspective, here are some real quotes from real people in the real world:

“I was working in the mail room of a government agency and fixed my boss’s printer, so they transferred me over the help desk to just basically enter tickets for other people to work on.”

“I had no interest in working in software out of college, and I honestly think my paperwork got mixed up at my first job. I was pretty sure I had applied and interviewed for a job where I'd be consulting with hospitals about various non-IT related things, but I showed up on my first day to find out I was actually a business analyst supporting Medicaid software that had nothing to do with hospitals.”

“I had just finished grad school and still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, just that I was no longer on the path I was taking for grad school. I started temping while looking for a permanent job and career path and ended up doing data entry for a small software company. Their HR person took a liking to me and invited me to apply for an entry level consulting job training users and doing help desk for their software.”

What’s that giant sucking sound you hear? That’s the sound of the technology industry literally pulling people against their will into the massive opportunity engine of a technology career. If the job market could talk, it would be screaming, “You’ll be forced to earn high salaries, live anywhere you want, have most weekends off, and wear what you want to work. Oh yeah, and you’ll never be without work, because if your company goes under, you’ll be hired by another firm within hours of putting your resume on the street, probably at a higher salary.” This sales pitch has no catch, and yet it commonly falls on deaf ears.

Why do we need to twist arms to get people to use their college years to develop technology skills for a career in tech? Because it’s just plain unappealing to most college-age people. Here are some more answers, and these help to explain why tech is so unappealing:

“It was easy to picture myself making a difference in International Relations.”

“I saw tech as a second choice because I was raised with computers and wanted to grow in other areas. I focused on English because writing skills would be valuable for any career, and figured I’d find a passion along the way and go from there.”

“It never occurred to me that I could get into technology, and why would I want to when I could set up animatronic dinosaurs, pet lion cubs & design a crawl-thru digestive system?”

“I was pretty heavy into creative writing and had a plan to become an English professor who specialized in Victorian Theater. But I got through undergrad and realized I HATED school and needed a break.”

“I thought technology was daunting both in terms of the difficulty of the work and the cost of buying a computer at that time was pretty significant, so I picked finance.”

“Liberal arts was more accessible and supported.”

That’s right. Despite our full life immersion in technology (car, phone, light switches, vacuum, music, shopping, medicine, etc.), many can’t or don’t picture themselves doing it as a career. People think tech work is boring or irrelevant.  They imagine themselves writing some obscure computer program that runs in some data center that affects no one’s life anywhere.

People aren’t making the connection between the technology they use every day, and their dream career. It’s actually easier for someone to imagine him or herself being cast in a movie than writing the code that streams the movie.

If we want to attract the best and brightest humans to technology careers, we need to give tech careers a makeover. As technology employers, we need to do a better job of connecting the world of technology to the jobs that fuel it. How can we do this? Here’s a start:

  • Admit that our buzzword-laden, acronym-heavy lingo is probably repelling more humans to our field than those who are attracted to it. We’re not impressing anyone when we use needlessly inaccessible terms that keep replacing last year’s needlessly inaccessible terms. Technology phrasing should describe what something actually does in plain terms. (Honestly, this habit has improved over the last few years, with terms like Agile, cloud, and blockchain seeming much more accessible than examples from decades past like client-server, DASD, and EBCDIC.)
  • Showcase the fabulous technology careers beyond software development. Sure, writing code is a critical technology job. But so are interviewing users, interpreting data, designing beautiful solutions, and being a great boss. And even the best code-slingers get to grapple with real-world challenges and design creative, elegant solutions to meet them. We’ve got to portray technology careers as accessible, human-oriented roles that people can imagine doing, not just for an hour, but for a lifetime.
  • Emphasize that tech specialization isn’t “pigeon-holing” or limiting career options. Tech employers should convey how versatile technology skills can be, and how they can be brought to bear on any type of challenge, from economic, to political, to social. We need to correct the misperception that technologists are uniquely specialized to one particular job in one particular company. The truth is that precisely the opposite is true: non-tech skills like medicine, art, or political science have fairly limited problem domains. But technology skills are much more universally applicable across virtually every challenge set.

There you have it: the start of a tech career makeover. If we’re ever going to correct the confounding imbalance between tech jobs and tech job-seekers, we have to up our game. What other ideas do you have for making technology jobs more approachable and attractive?

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