Monday, March 18, 2024

Dusting off an old viewpoint "From organization man to free agent" - How long should you remain in your job?

I was reflecting on the question of tenure in IT jobs, especially since this seems to be the most common question in tech forums and chatboards.

A copy of my article published in IEEE journal over 20 years ago

From organization man to free agent

Wojciech Cellary brought out a key point in his column on “The Profession's Role in the Global Information Society” (Sept. 2003, pp. 124, 122–123): Computing professionals continually face exclusion from their work because digital technology advances so swiftly. Along with this risk, changes in the global information society have led to a shift in the computing professional's role from “organization man” to free agent. Renowned management guru Peter Drucker outlined this trend in “Managing Oneself” (Harvard Business Journal, March-April 1999, pp. 65–74). Drucker advises professionals, “… and we will have to stay mentally alert and engaged during a 50-year working life, which means knowing how and when to change the work we do.”

The Organization Man

The traditional concept of the computing profession originated just after World War II, when most Western nations enjoyed a long growth spell. To cater to the emerging needs of the postwar market, corporations built gigantic factories to manufacture products and serve consumer needs. To manage these operations, organizations also started automating their systems with computers. Spurred by this growth in manufacturing productivity, governments, financial institutions, and retailers began to automate their systems as well. During this period, William H. Whyte wrote his much acclaimed book, The Organization Man (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), and the term soon caught the fancy of an entire generation of working professionals. Whyte defines organization men as

… the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions. In a system that makes such hazy terminology as “junior executive” psychologically necessary, they are of the staff as much as the line, and most are destined to live poised in a middle area that still awaits a satisfactory euphemism. But they are the dominant members of our society nonetheless….

Note that Whyte wrote his book during an age when men constituted the bulk of the white-collar workforce, and I will not attempt to be politically correct by using the term organization people here.

To thrive in a rapidly changing world, computing professionals must become free agents.

For nearly half a century after the book appeared, the organization man typified the professional. In most parts of the world, huge corporations—private, public, and government-owned—employed hundreds of thousands of organization men. That era also saw the rise of the computing professional, personified by legions of IBM employees clad in white shirt and tie. Endless movies idolized devoted company men in gray flannel suits and the stable life they enjoyed. Most white-collar professionals across the world sought and could aspire to this American Dream of a good education that led to a good job, a house in the suburbs, and a wife and kids. During this age the public regarded corporations with reverence and deference, a topic analyzed by authors like Fred Harmon and Garry Jacobs, who note in their book The Vital Difference (Amacom, 1985) that “Ma Bell [AT&T] became the ultimate symbol of a benevolent corporation working in and for the public interest.”

Death of the Organization Man

The corporate world experienced a radical transformation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when cost cutting, downsizing, and rightsizing became the new mantra. Corporations across the globe transformed from benevolent entities to profit centers driven by the interests of their stockholders.

This left the concept of the organization man dying if not completely dead. The most visible cornerstone of the organization man's existence—life-time employment—eroded as well. Globalization of business and management practices also meant the globalization of cost cutting, downsizing, and layoffs. Significantly, even Japanese companies—leading proponents of lifetime employment until recently—have revisited their ideals in light of their economy's decade-long downturn. In India, the wave of privatization sweeping through public companies has led to many so-called voluntary retirements. Asian and European companies have followed in their American counterparts' footsteps and now use layoffs as a regular cost-cutting measure.

Individuals have thus begun to realize that even if they wanted to, they could not entrust their career to a single company: Corporations themselves are regularly evolving, transforming, acquiring other businesses or being acquired by them, and sometimes going bankrupt. Professionals are experiencing what Intel cofounder Andy Grove calls a strategic inflexion point (Only The Paranoid Survive, Time Warner, 1999), with the traditional notions of work and career giving way to a new model in which individuals are expected to take responsibility for their own career moves.

Transition to Free Agent

Faced with this new reality, computing professionals have made a fundamental shift in how they view their careers. Traditional organizational hierarchies are giving way to project- and performance-oriented groups and structures, ushering in the era of gold-collar workers. These free agents are highly skilled professionals who owe a greater allegiance to their profession than to the organizations for which they work.

Daniel Pink first extended the term free agent—borrowed from professional sports—to corporate professionals in his book Free Agent Nation (Warner Books, 2002). Pink sees the emergence of moonlighting as one way professionals can hedge their bets in a changing world:

Diversification—that is, an independent worker spreading her risks across a portfolio of projects, clients, skills and customers is the best hedging strategy…. In the Organization Man era, moonlighting was a big no-no, the very name implied that you were doing something illicit concealing your behavior under the cover of darkness. No more. Today, anybody who holds a job and isn't looking for a side gig—or crafting a business plan, writing a screenplay, or setting up shop on eBay—is out of touch. Moonlighting is a way to diversify your human capital investments—and hedge against the risk of your company collapsing or your job disappearing. In some sense, we're all moonlighters, because in every sense, we're all risk managers.

Becoming Free Agents

Table 1 shows how careers in IT consulting have evolved from lifelong single-employer jobs to a free-agent model. Y2K, the Internet, and the dotcom boom brought a whole legion of professionals from varied backgrounds into the computing field. Some joined traditional companies' IT departments, but many decided to explore careers in consulting. The industry also saw the appearance of a whole array of consulting companies, ranging from small shops with a handful of consultants to large system integrators like IBM and EDS.

Table 1. Organization man versus free agent.
Table 1.- Organization man versus free agent.

The industry afforded a gamut of vocational choices, from short-term projects spanning a few weeks to longterm maintenance projects lasting a few years. Along the way, computing professionals also realized that the industry was becoming increasingly market driven. Thus, getting certified in vendor technologies, being associated with professional bodies—including the IEEE and ACM—and building expertise in current skills gave them more leverage than being associated with a blue-chip employer.

Individual computing professionals have also shown their market savvy by selling themselves as experts in Cobol, ERP, Java,.NET, the Web, and other technologies the market demands, sometimes juggling multiple hats at once. The career trajectory of many computing professionals has begun to resemble that of free agents who take on a series of projects or assignments that help them market their skills to the highest bidder.

The computing professional may be taking a page from a trend already established by other professionals in vocations such as law, medicine, finance, and academia. Lawyers and financial analysts have long known that their real allegiance is to the profession rather than to individual organizations or companies where they work. Being a corporate attorney or a corporate financial analyst is perceived to be less glamorous and financially rewarding than working for a high-profile partnership or, better still, founding one's own firm. Academicians and professors have refined moonlighting into an art—consulting for large corporations, helping their clients understand and incorporate the latest academic and research ideas, and raking in huge fees—even while continuing their day job of teaching and spearheading university research.

By building and maintaining a brand and attracting a steady stream of clients, free-agent professionals can thrive by following the models established by those in the following fields: 

  • lawyers and legal professionals; 
  • chartered accountants and financial professionals;
  • doctors and medical specialists; 

  • Management consultants;

  • architects, builders, masons, and craftsmen;

  • artists, performers, singers, and musicians;

  • freelance writers and columnists;

  • athletes and sports stars; and

  • academicians and professors who moonlight as consultants.

Computing professionals now realize that they need to take active charge of the direction in which their careers are headed. Whether they view a career as a series of assignments or as a mix of traditional jobs and moonlighting, all computing professionals must actively take control of their career. Today's companies value people based on what they bring to the project, assignment, or work task rather than how many years these professionals have spent at one job. Quoting Drucker again:

The challenges of managing oneself may seem obvious, if not elementary. And the answers may seem self-evident to the point of appearing naive. But managing oneself requires new and unprecedented things from the individual, and especially from the knowledge worker. In effect, managing oneself demands that each knowledge worker think and behave like a chief executive officer…. Every existing society, even the most individualistic one, takes two things for granted, if only subconsciously: that organizations outlive workers, and that most people stay put…. But today the opposite is true. Knowledge workers outlive organizations, and they are mobile. The need to manage oneself is therefore creating a revolution in human affairs.

Academia pays close attention to these industry trends. Engineering schools and universities, especially in the West, have begun introducing technologists to entrepreneurship and business fundamentals. Further, the students graduating into the field of computing are beginning to realize that courses in entrepreneurship will play an essential role in helping them manage their lives and careers.

As professionals in a workforce with evolving expectations of the employer-employee relationship, most of us will need to acquire and apply entrepreneurial and business management skills to manage our careers. Our career trajectories will thus depend on constant marketing and networking rather than climbing the ladder of a predefined career track.

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