Ask the IT Career Doctor: Is Outsourcing a Threat?

By Katherine Spencer Lee | June 2007

I keep hearing that businesses continue to outsource IT functions overseas. I’m a help desk manager with about eight years of experience. Should I be worried about losing my job? What can I do to protect myself?

Katherine Lee Spencer responds:
The topic of offshore outsourcing is one that is discussed a great deal, but is often oversimplified. Look beyond the news headlines and you’ll find a multifaceted phenomenon that’s continuing to evolve. It’s still unclear how – and to what degree – outsourcing will affect the industry over the long term.

While at one extreme, there is the fear that foreign talent takes jobs away from workers in the U.S., others see a trend that’s already peaked as companies begin to realize the hidden costs of outsourcing.

The truth probably lies somewhere between the two. Even if you’ve heard rumblings within your organization about moving some IT operations overseas, many factors, including cost and security, may prevent your firm from doing so. A 2006 study from the Society for Information Management found that just 3.3 percent of corporate budgets were allocated to the funding of offshore outsourcing programs, in comparison to 33 percent of the budget for the funding of in-house workers.

That doesn’t mean outsourcing will disappear anytime soon, however. A more likely result is that smart companies will take a more discerning, strategic approach to it, rather than signing quick-fix contracts that yield only immediate savings.

What It Means to You
As a very general rule, the more your job is based on routine activities, the more vulnerable it is to outsourcing. Skills that aren’t easily measured, such as interpersonal, communication and leadership abilities, as well as business acumen, tend to be the most difficult to replace with overseas talent.

As a help desk manager with eight years of experience, you’ve probably developed some of these soft skills. Extensive practical knowledge of your company’s products also makes you tougher to replace.

But even these homegrown assets don’t make you invulnerable to outsourcing. Whatever your position, you can’t "outsource-proof" your career, just as you can’t immunize yourself against other changes in your company or industry. What you can do is build an IT career that allows you to adapt to all kinds of trends, including outsourcing.

Here are a few key ways to do so:

Never stop learning. Outsourcing increases the number of available workers who share some of your technical skills. Training courses offered through local technical colleges, professional association involvement and independent study can help you identify emerging areas of specialization and become an early adopter of new technologies.

Develop your soft skills. Even more than technical skills, soft skills set you apart, whether your competition is across the hall or across the world. In a survey by Robert Half Technology, CIOs cited interpersonal skills, the ability to work under pressure and communication skills as the top traits they seek in IT professionals, aside from technological proficiency. Individuals who can convey complex technical information to varied audiences, build rapport with end-users and serve as vital members of project teams are valued by employers.

Keep business goals in view. The most sought-after IT professionals don¿t just know how technology works – they also understand how it can be used to solve business problems. They are active participants in key business decisions, which requires a broader understanding of issues affecting their companies and industries. Reading general business publications, attending conferences, and getting to know colleagues in other departments and the issues facing their groups are just a few ways you can broaden this knowledge.

An Opportunity, Not a Threat
Don’t assume that the effect of outsourcing on your career can only be negative. Your response to outsourcing gives you a chance to reassess your overall approach to your career and may even open opportunities that benefit your professional development.

Companies that embrace outsourcing often are finding that they must hire an entirely new category of worker – the outsourcing professional – in order to manage contracts, train workers and oversee the work being done overseas. This may become an area ripe with challenging, well-compensated domestic jobs.

Whether IT outsourcing turns out to be a ripple or a tsunami, it’s only part of a sea of trends and forces – some obvious, some below the surface – that affect your career. By gaining the flexibility to adapt to changes and learn how to benefit from them, you stand a better chance of truly going places, rather than just staying afloat.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia.