Back in the very early days of computers, classics graduates were, apparently, the candidates of choice for programming jobs. Their grasp of syntax, as practised so meticulously in Athens or Rome, was said to give them a head start over mere plumbers (ie engineering graduates).
Many an elegant Assembler statement was, in those days, put together by former Aeneid scholars. A few such statements may even today be silently executing in some vast bank’s datacentre, relics of that classical tradition.
Analysts, in those days, were also special animals. Many worked in management services departments, not IT departments, and were taught that computer systems were not the automatic answer to every business problem. The acid test of a good analyst then was whether they were prepared to recommend not introducing a computer system, but (say) changing manual procedures instead. Their primary asset was their brain, not their detailed technical knowledge.
My point is that IT has traditionally been full of people from all kinds of backgrounds, not just career techies. But today, things are changing: many IT functions are becoming monocultures populated only by technology-focused male engineers, computer scientists or scientists. And that monoculture is an ageing one, due to recent low graduate recruitment and the large cohorts of 40 and 50-year-olds who were recruited in the 1970s and 1980s. A major contributory factor is that only a technical education can get you into many IT functions nowadays.
The daft logic that can underlie this trend was brought home to me recently when an IT human resources manager told me that his chief information officer now expects every recruit to have a scientific or engineering education.
“Why?” I asked. “He wants to make sure they will at least have heard of Oracle and SAP and other common software products.” Engineering or science graduates are highly unlikely to have been taught about either, of course, and – thanks to the excellence of Excel and other shrink-wrapped software – they are unlikely to have undertaken any computer programming.
Other CIOs will have different reasons for their focus on a technical education, but the general effect is to reinforce the emerging technical male monoculture.
In parallel, we have the age problem. For five years now, graduate recruitment has been minimal – so many teams have no-one under 30 in them. And while the law forbids companies from being ageist, young graduates are quite at liberty to choose not to join – or to leave – IT teams where no-one else is under 30.
The same employee-based dynamics apply to women. How many women want to join or stay with departments filled with male computer scientists or engineers? Little wonder that 78% of those in the average IT function are male.
These age and gender issues will be very much harder to tackle where the numbers of younger people and women fall below certain critical levels. And the problem could spread to others, too: male techies don’t necessarily want to work just with other male techies. Result: IT could shortly be shunned by the women, young generalists and even the bright male engineers that it seems to value most.
CIOs must work towards a vision of a multi-talented, diverse, business-focused IT workforce. That includes having some of the kinds of people who might otherwise have joined management consultancies or other service providers. If geography or history or language graduates are bright and enthusiastic about improving your business, and can apply themselves to the detail, hire them to work alongside your technical people.
As in the natural world, monocultures are inflexible and vulnerable, while biodiverse environments generate innovation and change. In short, IT must maintain its biodiversity if it is to deliver on its mission.
How is this done? First you’ll have to let undergraduates know, in your recruitment publicity material, that you’re offering them a chance to improve a business and transform how it works. Second, you might try recruiting non-IT people from your own business: people who know how things work and have an interest in improving them. These, along with good technical people, will form a powerful team.
Some companies are on to this already, of course. Tesco, for example, will accept a degree in any subject, as long as it comes with commercial awareness, problem solving ability and a keen interest in technology. AstraZeneca wants people who are “genuinely excited by the potential of information and by the prospect of identifying new and innovative uses for technology... whatever their background”.
And the Unilever graduate leadership programme sets no restrictions in degree subject for entry to its IT stream.