Friday, February 13, 2015

"30 years this February" Musing on Free Agents in IT

Many of us in the vibrant field of Information Technology (IT) think of ourselves as “Free Agents.” Chasing the next cool project and opportunity to work on newer technologies or simply jumping for more money seems to be the norm.

Hence I was pleasantly surprised to see a Linkedin notification inviting me to “Say Happy work anniversary!” to a connection, a fellow EA who shall remain unnamed, for “30 years this February” I had to do a double take before I “liked” the post and added my Congrats!


Thirty years working for a single employer is a lifetime, especially for corporate IT professionals. All the more surprising, given the constant corporate churn, periodic reorganizations, M&A, outsourcing and offshoring that folks in corporate IT have to work through.

This got me reflecting on the arguments I had made in an article over a decade ago (IEEE’s Computer Magazine: “From organization man to free agent”) My thoughts had been triggered by Daniel Pink’s bestseller, Free Agent Nation. In his book, Mr. Pink extends the term Free Agent from the field of sports to corporate world, contending that emergence of moonlighting was a way for corporate professionals to hedge their bets in a changing world.

My argument was that IT and computing professionals are breaking away from the typical mold of an “organization man*” by striving to become free agents. Some do it by moonlighting or job-hopping and others by building and maintaining a personal “brand” independent of their corporate identity. I took that message to heart and have tried to live the life of a free agent, albeit within the umbrella of large employers. (For instance, the rather long stint of 8+ years I spent with my previous employer was really a series of gigs, relocating across three continents and four countries.)

A lot has happened since I wrote that paper, redefining my perception of free-agents including:
  • Globalization and maturing of offshoring: Maturing of offshoring IT services has meant that organizations are no longer in unchartered waters when it comes to managing projects across time zones and cultures with globally distributed teams.
  • Continuing economic downturn and limited mobility. Major economies around the globe continue to struggle. Unemployment continues to be high in many western economies, and anti-globalization sentiment continues be fueled by the media. In many cases this translates to protectionism, tightening of immigration controls and restrictions on free movement of people and services providers across national boundaries.
It is almost as if protectionism is boosting offshoring of IT services, while limiting mobility and marketability of free agents. Of course, one can argue that Guru.com, Elance , taskrabbit and others micro-job platforms have made freelancing global, and in many cases we are seeing a flattening world (apologies Friedman). But those are at the bottom of the IT services pyramid.

A few tenacious corporate IT professionals continue to beat the 30+ year mark as Organization Men. Their knowledge of organization dynamics, constraints and organization culture help them survive and thrive at the core of their organizations while everything and everyone around changes.

My guess is that an IS/IT graduate starting a “career” with a global / Fortune 500 / large enterprise as a technical analyst or a programmer today can’t really plan to spend the rest of a “career” working for that employer, even if s/he really wanted to.

*PS: not trying to be politically incorrect, just reusing the title of William H Whyte’s much acclaimed book “Organization Man

(Blog cross posted from my Linkedin post)