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Hard Work—Is It Worth It?

Do what you love! Tough challenges and advancement opportunities outweigh low salaries.

After the economic debacle of 2001—2003, which laid waste to thousands of IT jobs in the United States, you might expect Windows IT pros to be more than a little skittish about the recovery and looking in other career directions. The good news is that, on the whole, Windows IT pros—whose job titles include primarily IT management, executive management, system administrator, network administrator, and Help desk and application deployment professionals—are a reasonably content bunch, according to the results of our Windows IT Pro Industry Survey 2004. (See "Putting a Face on the Windows IT Pro," page 15, for a list of the job titles we surveyed.) Additionally, our survey results indicate that the hiring outlook for Windows IT pros is moderately optimistic, especially in small to midsized companies.

Several factors in the survey are key indicators of job satisfaction. These indicators include whether survey respondents would recommend IT as a profession to young people looking to choose a vocation, whether they feel that they're adequately compensated for their work, whether they're looking for new employment, and how long they plan to stay with their current employer.

In addition to these indicators, we explore other factors that comprise the challenges and rewards that keep Windows IT pros motivated: the professional issues that keep IT pros up at night and the pressing problems in their work; factors that influence job satisfaction (e.g., recognition, the opportunity to implement systems that benefit users), and factors that they consider to be important in selecting a new job. On a related note, we also examine which companies the survey participants most admire. Finally, we look at the employment outlook at respondents' companies as an overall indicator of how optimistic (or pessimistic) Windows IT pros feel about the future of their jobs and their profession.

I ♥ IT
One way to gauge how satisfied people are with their career choice is to ask them whether they'd recommend that career to someone else. Our survey did just that—and found that respondents overwhelmingly say that they'd recommend IT as a profession to young people who are looking for a vocation. Seventy-five percent say they'd recommend IT to a young person regardless of that person's gender, whereas only 17 percent wouldn't recommend IT as a career. Relatively few respondents (who are by and large male) say that a person's gender would influence whether they'd recommend IT as a career.

Many of those surveyed commented favorably about their choice of IT as a career. "Besides the fact that \[the IT profession\] develops your mind and the way you see the world, it's extremely challenging, and the satisfaction you get when you finish a job is great," said one IT pro. Other respondents echoed that feeling of satisfaction. "The career isn't thankless. You can get the personal satisfaction of doing a good job and helping others on a daily basis." Many respondents also agreed with the person who wrote that IT is "challenging, diverse, and exciting."

Some IT pros—including several who would recommend IT as a career—pointed out stumbling blocks in the profession. "The glory days of IT seem to be over," said one person. Echoing other respondents' sentiments, another lamented, "The good IT jobs are going away." A number of those who commented complained about not being paid enough relative to the work they do and their value to the business. The IT pro who said, "The salaries don't often reflect the number of hours worked and the need for round-the-clock availability that IT folks often endure" would find many peers who agree.

Several survey participants noted that it takes a certain type of person to succeed in IT. One Windows IT pro nicely summarized this perception, commenting, "I think this is a fantastic career choice for those that fit the profile.... If you enjoy learning new technologies and love to tackle tough challenges, this is a great field. I truly believe the geek profile holds true in our industry. You don't find many extroverts looking for system administration jobs!"

Compensation and Career Plans
Money can't buy happiness, but it does have some sway over whether an IT pro chooses to remain in a position or look for another (presumably better-paying) job. Only 42 percent of survey respondents believe they're adequately compensated for the work they do. Unsurprisingly, IT pros who are dissatisfied with their compensation are more likely to be actively seeking another position than are those who are content with the size of their paychecks. Twenty-three percent of those who believe that they're inadequately compensated are actively seeking a new position, and 44 percent would follow up on an interesting opportunity.

In contrast, only 14 percent of respondents who feel adequately compensated are actively seeking a new position, and just 32 percent would follow up on an interesting opportunity. As you might expect, only 9 percent of the inadequately compensated group don't envision changing jobs, compared with 26 percent of the adequately compensated group.

Most survey respondents (90 percent) are full-time employees, with the remainder characterizing themselves as consultants, freelance/self-employed, contract workers, part-time, or other. (For a detailed look at IT pros' work profiles, see "Taking Care of Business," page 33.) The largest share of survey participants—39 percent—plan to stay with their current employer another year or two, whereas 26 percent say they'll stay another 6 months or so. Almost as many IT pros are currently looking for another job (16 percent) as are planning to stay with their current employer indefinitely (19 percent).

Pressing Concerns
According to our survey, meeting on-the-job challenges is an important element of career satisfaction for many Windows IT pros. High on the list of worries that keep IT pros up at night are system security and system stability and reliability concerns (in a two-way tie for first place; both were ranked 8 or higher on our 10-point scale by 49 percent of respondents); career development; spending time solving problems instead of planning for improvements; dealing with the challenges of new and emerging technologies; and providing satisfactory customer service to network users.

Filtering these concerns by the three IT job titles most common among respondents—IT management (i.e., IT director, IT manager, and purchasing manager), systems administrator, and network administrator—reveals that the issues that IT pros consider the most pressing vary somewhat depending on their job description. Most notably, systems administrators are somewhat less concerned about system security than are IT management and network administrators. Fifty-three percent of systems administrators report that worries about system security keep them up at night, whereas system security is the top concern for 66 percent of IT management pros and the same percentage of network administrators.

The fact that fewer systems administrators consider security to be a pressing problem probably implies that systems administrators are more focused on other day-to-day responsibilities, such as resolving end-user and system problems; performing tasks such as software deployments, patch management, and system backup; and keeping servers up and running. Supporting this conclusion is the fact that most systems administrators (57 percent) say that their chief concern is system stability and reliability.

Interestingly, more systems administrators (41 percent) and network administrators (39 percent) report being concerned about career development than do IT management pros (32 percent). IT managers might pay less attention to career development because they've already attained their career goals—or because they're too busy handling the demands of their jobs to spend time plotting a career development strategy.

In a related question, the survey asked about the work problems that respondents consider to be the most pressing. Here too, IT pros report that security is a top concern. According to survey participants, their three most pressing problems at work are finding optimal products for the business (49 percent), security vulnerabilities (48 percent), and inability to adequately test products and solutions (44 percent).

Staying Happy
What are the most important factors in keeping IT pros satisfied with their jobs? Compensation, as you might have guessed, is one of the most important—72 percent of respondents rated compensation 8 or higher. However, 76 percent of participants rated opportunity to implement systems that benefit users 8 or higher, suggesting that, for most IT pros, the intangible rewards associated with providing a welcome service are even more important than the monetary compensation they receive. Other job-satisfaction factors that received ratings of 8 or higher from a large share of survey participants include researching technical solutions (66 percent), the challenges of implementing new systems (65 percent), recognition by others of their efforts (55 percent), and solving technical problems (52 percent).

Working in team situations with peers (44 percent) and working independently of others (43 percent) received the fewest high rankings from respondents. Apparently, IT pros work equally well in teams or independently—or perhaps this factor, which is more interpersonal in nature than the others, is of less interest to IT pros than the technical and problem-solving aspects of their jobs.

Ideal Job, Ideal Company
Although only a relatively small percentage of survey respondents admit to actively seeking a job at present, most of you have thought about what you'd consider most important in evaluating a job offer. Our survey shows that IT pros consider numerous factors when they evaluate a new job. The five factors that IT pros rank as most important are the challenge of the work (73 percent); professional development opportunities, base salary, and job security (a three-way tie at 72 percent each); and advancement potential (68 percent).

Some survey participants enthusiastically responded to the question What companies do you most admire? Predictably, Microsoft was mentioned often. One respondent wrote, "I admire Microsoft for their accomplishments in producing products that have impacted the entire world," while others praised Microsoft for its persistence and innovation. But IT pros aren't Microsoft bigots; a healthy number mentioned their admiration for other companies, such as Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, Citrix Systems, Dell, HP, and Novell. Interestingly, many participants said that they don't admire companies; rather, they admire individuals for their accomplishments. (To learn more about the companies IT pros admire, see "Who Do You Love?", page 63.)

Some respondents also mentioned their wish list of companies they'd most like to work for. One IT pro nostalgically recalled his days at IBM, while others named companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems as their ideal employer—primarily because they wanted to work for a leading-edge technology firm. And, of course, a few participants said that the company they most admired and wanted to work for was their own.

Employment Outlook
Our survey results parallel what IT industry—analysis sources such as the Hudson Index have recently observed about IT jobs: By and large, companies are either maintaining or increasing the number of IT jobs. That's especially good news after months of a sluggish US economy and significant layoffs among highly paid high-tech workers. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents—61 percent—say that their company plans to maintain the current number of IT jobs. Twenty-eight percent say that their company plans to increase the number of IT jobs, and only 11 percent say that their company plans to scale back IT jobs.

Drilling down into the survey results reveals an interesting trend in IT hiring that's related to company size. The smallest companies—those with fewer than 1000 employees—have the most robust outlook for IT hiring. Ninety-four percent of those surveyed at small companies say that their firm plans to either increase (30 percent) or maintain (64 percent) the number of IT jobs in the coming year, while only 6 percent of companies with fewer than 1000 employees plan to scale back IT jobs.

The larger the company, the more curtailed its IT hiring plans: Seventy-seven percent of IT pros in large companies (i.e., those with 25,000 or more employees) say that their companies will increase (25 percent) or maintain (52 percent) the number of IT jobs—a number 17 percent lower than that of small companies. At least one survey participant agrees that the IT hiring outlook is rosiest in smaller firms. "Even with the threat of outsourcing and downsizing, there are still many good jobs in the IT sector. I recommend that \[people seeking a career in IT\] look into small to midsized companies, as these companies are more likely to be loyal and reward good workers."

How's Your Job Satisfaction?
If you're a Windows IT pro, the chances are good that you enjoy your profession. You appreciate the diverse challenges that keep your career interesting and value the rewards of solving complex problems, performing a needed service, working in a dynamic industry, and doing your job well. You also probably feel you're not compensated quite enough for your hard work—but not so much so that you want to change professions. Security and system stability and reliability are among your top day-to-day job concerns.

Although you'll probably stay with your current employer for at least another 6 months, you remain alert for job opportunities. If you're engaged in a job search, you're looking especially for challenging work, opportunities for professional development, an equitable base salary, and job security. The IT hiring outlook in the coming year looks a little more hopeful than it's been in a while, especially at small companies. All told, a typical Windows IT pro has much to be satisfied about.

See associated figure — Are You Looking for a New Position?

See associated figure — How Long Do You Plan to Stay with Your Current Employer?

See associated figure — Top 5 Concerns That Keep You up at Night

See associated figure — Your Company's IT Plans

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