How and why did offshore outsourcing happen with such speed and fury? What does it all mean? North Carolina State Vice Provost and CIO Sam Averitt weighs in and explains how offshoring is truly changing what it means to be in IT. Bottom line: If you're not innovating, find another field.
More on IT leadership
What areas of IT would you recommend a graduate get into these days?
Averitt: Anything that lies on the verge between disciplines is a good one to get into now. The boom now is in genetics -- the biological sciences. There are a lot of IT requirements in that space, but it doesn't matter whether you're in city planning, education or industry -- you've got to be looking at a broader set of skills than IT. What's important is bringing IT to some activity where you're merging and innovating using technology tools to give the existing worker, activity or business value.
If a job is routine and can be completely specified, it will be offshored. Or perhaps [something will be] offshored today but automated tomorrow. We will figure out how to eliminate most personnel costs. Computers are becoming more self-aware and autonomic and able to identify protective solutions.
There will always be IT jobs, but they're going to require two things: Not only are you going to have to be very highly skilled in IT, you'll have to be an innovator -- it's impossible to be successful without being an innovator. You'll have to know how to add value or prove outcomes using technology. So you have to understand IT and business and how to pull those two together.
Have you noticed fewer students taking IT-related classes?
Averitt: I think we're seeing declines. I think there was this dot-com euphoria three-four years ago where if you could get a degree in IT, you could do no wrong, all the possibilities were open to you, and there were no limits. We know now that's not true. There are still a lot of opportunities, but IT is not for everyone. And the requirements are different from five to 10 years ago. What's going to be expected of today's IT graduate is going to be different than it was of yesterday's.
Understand that graduates in India and China are extremely capable as well. But they're also going to create new markets and opportunities. There's such a differentiation in the standard of living between Americans places like China and India that have long-established civilizations. There's not that great a difference in the educational standards. But there is in the standard of living, and so we're seeing that disparity show up. That's why jobs are flowing so fast overseas. As those economies improve and become 21st century economies, you're going to see more balance and more equity in exchange rates, and when that happens there won't be this huge one-way flow. You're going to see innovation rewarded equally no matter where it occurs. And I think we have to prepare our society to become one of innovation because that's where the value of the future will be found. The exchange rates can't remain the way they are forever, especially as societies become larger, consumer societies. When the population reaches a certain economic standing, they'll be buying as much as they're selling.
Getting a degree in computer science used to mean you were set. I guess that's no longer the case.
Averitt: You could get a degree in computer science, but if you're thinking about what you're going to do when you get out, you're going to need to challenge yourself, and maybe look at your minor and make it something other than mathematics -- branch it out in a way that's expansive and opens up opportunities.
Even researchers in a particular area now have to have a broader set of skills than they used to. You can innovate within your discipline, but the more likely job prospects are going to require innovation across disciplines. The real opportunity right now is at the verge where different themes intersect -- being able to apply IT to your business model. Where IT and medicine intersect; where IT and teaching and learning intersect -- it's at those intersections or verges where you get the greatest opportunity for creativity and profound change.
What do you think about possible laws to curb offshoring?
Averitt: Barriers are just going to make you less competitive. In the long run, that will hurt you. I think we have to make people aware of what's happening. I think there's a sort of truth in marketing -- that our successes also create disadvantages, and we need to acknowledge that everything isn't going to come up roses. We need to spend more time looking at the downside of our success and how we mitigate those downsides and prepare the workforce to move forward and be successful in the new paradigm. I think the offshoring argument is like the situation with the recording industry. Technology has become very disruptive, and the old model isn't going to work anymore, but we haven't yet found the new model. The sooner we can identify a new model or equilibrium and embrace it, the better off we'll be.
The force of change is organic, in my opinion. It is adaptive, evolved and moves around barriers. While you think you impose conditions to stop something, there are so many ways the force of change can move around the barrier. What you have to do is learn to go with the flow and to navigate the flow to be successful in that kind of environment. The sooner we can come to grips with this new reality and learn to manage it well, the better off we'll be. We'll reach stability when we get a new mindset and realize that this is the way things are going to be from now on.
Did you see the offshore outsourcing wave coming? Could you have imagined it five years ago?
Averitt: Yes, but I didn't see it coming as fast as it came. But I think it was inevitable. We all saw time being compressed and the spacing between events becoming shorter. Certain industries and methods become obsolete and others take their place. What's different is, it's happening over a shorter time span. We have a lot to learn about [being] a technology-driven economy.
What's your take on the offshore outsourcing trend? Has it changed the way you teach your students?
Averitt: This is probably the most profound question of today. What we're really seeing and what we're feeling is the force of change -- the ever- increasing rate of change. I think all timelines are collapsing. Offshoring would have happened anyway, but in the past it would have happened over a generation or two. [In] the '90s, everyone thought that IT jobs were sacrosanct and the way of the future. Now suddenly, IT jobs are being sent offshore. What's happened is the pace of technological change has contracted the time scale to the point where what would have happened anyway over a long period of time [instead] is happening within a 10-15 year period. The next changes are likely to happen in an even shorter timeframe. The natural cycle is shortening, and the impact on people is tremendous because it's creating a chaotic churn.
The collapsing timeline disrupts our sense of normalcy. What was normal and appropriate yesterday isn't today. Maybe the new generation of kids will be much more suited to this environment than those who are older. It's hard to make changes on a continuing basis. We'd like to move to a comfort level where we've established ourselves, but in this environment, in some ways you've never arrived; you've never established yourself, and any one place is temporary. There's a transitional nature to everything. It's like a journey where you stop momentarily in any one place.
And by the way, it's going to keep changing, and the pace of that change is going to increase. We're living in a very dynamic time. I often refer to it as 'living in the flow' -- everything is flowing -- nothing is static. Our assumptions, which may have been good yesterday, may be invalid tomorrow. We must keep reassessing our practices and approaches. We are the victims, in some ways, of our own success.
How does being CIO of a university differ from being CIO of a private company? Do you have to think in business terms as well?
Averitt: The decisions I make in higher education are different from the ones you'd make in some other fields, [but] the over-arching thought processes are very similar -- correlating your investment with business decisions, being conscious of outcomes and building bridges between customers, employees, senior leadership and IT.
You've got to communicate why and how you're investing -- how that relates to the goals and outcomes that the enterprise has as its mission. We have to link our investment strategy with our desired outcomes and programmatic objectives. A lot of people say they can save a lot of money in IT by doing this or that, but in truth you want to make sure that whatever you do has a positive impact on the company's business. In our case, it's teaching and learning, research, extension and outreach. So yes, we want to save money and be accountable, but at the end of the day, no matter how efficient the investment is, it's no good unless it produces good outcomes. It really is the case now that there is no single model or template for IT investing. It has to be relevant and relative to what you're trying to accomplish in terms of business.
You can no longer be doing things in a vacuum. IT has in many ways grown up, people in IT are still expected to be innovators, and those innovations are expected to return tangible value to the enterprise.