Who's Laughing Now, or, I Sure Am Glad I Didn't Go Corporate

A few days ago I noticed and skimmed an article reporting on a survey conducted last fall of CIOs at a number of higher education institutions. It found that they were experiencing some budget reductions, were working hard to do more but without more people, and that there were some concerns that the innovative and creative parts of what higher ed IT staff do might suffer.

I don't think that will happen. I happen to think that many of us who are in the higher education realm, even if lacking a faculty position, are here for the same reasons that the faculty are - for precisely the creativity and innovation possibilities. "Playing" is part of our job, and the future looks bright for that part of our job description staying put.

Just after I read that article, I happened to see a bright, fluorescent green dinosaur staring up at me from the inside of a box of old papers and magazine as I crossed by my office's storage area. I picked it up, and read, in big letters across the front "Forget the Dow! Here Comes the New Economy! You might have already guessed, if you've got a collection on your bookshelf, that I was looking at the June 1998 issue of Wired magazine, with the logo "Capitalize on the Future" under the "w" in the magazine title. (This was published just after Alan Greenspan's famous "irrational exuberance" remarks.)

Boy, did skimming through that bring back some memories. I bet every one of the following items stimulates some memories and thoughts for you, too:

· Right away, there's a Kinko's ad emphasizing "the new way to office" and promising "total support," 24x7. I don't know about where you are, but I haven't run across an all night Kinko's in quite some time. And now, Kinko's is being purchased and renamed by Federal Express.
· Then there's an ad for the "Long Boom" symposium in Brazil, where experts were to discuss how the long economic boom which had started in the United States would sweep throughout Latin America, eventually flowering in 2020.
· That's closely followed by an ad for high-density floppy disks. (I think it's been more than a year since I've touched a so-called "floppy" disk.
· One opinion piece noted that a "recent" (1996, remember) survey of mutual fund investors showed that they expected a 34 percent annual return on their investments for the next 10 years and finished with this statement: "If the market is right - and we know it is! - there's nothing to worry about."

Anyway, browsing through the issue, I recalled going to conferences in New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta where my buddies in the Internet professionals association (which I helped to found and served on the board of for many years) were mixing, socially and professionally, with - and themselves becoming, on paper - multi-millionaires. And there I was with my decent but low-paying job in academia, unable to afford to buy or even rent the Porsches and the Ferraris my friends were driving around in. And desperately hoping at major meals not to get stuck with the incredible check. I was, frankly, often quite envious.

But for some reason, I was rarely tempted by the occasional offer of a West Coast or an East Coast job offer. I liked living in a college town and I had a young family that sort of kept me grounded. Boy, am I glad now that I stayed where I was. I know lots of people who are looking hopefully for jobs, and quite a few who are unhappily working at jobs now that pay a lot less than they were making several years ago. In "the outside world," companies are more and more driven by the "IT D'esn't Matter" philosophy expounded by a recent Harvard Business Review article by the same title, with its blood-curdling mantra of "Spend Less. Follow, don't lead. Focus on vulnerabilities, not opportunities." Gasp!

I had lunch recently with a colleague from deep inside the IT structure of the University of Michigan and was pleased to learn from the conversation that although there are indeed budget cuts and some changed expectations about support work, he's able to go right ahead and do creative kinds of things, every day. He might work a 10-hour day and put in 60 hours a week, but he gets to play at work. It's expected that he'll play at work.

Here, inside higher education, we might be a little worried that budget cuts might de-motivate some of our more creative and innovative work, but no one's telling us that because IT is now simply infrastructure; we're now custodians of the virtual infrastructure, virtual maintenance workers. Pity the poor custodians of the physical infrastructure, because they don't have the freedom we do to play with their infrastructure and create new things. We do play as part of our jobs, it's expected of us, and at least in mid-2004, no one's trying to tell us we can't play anymore. Our buddies who still have jobs in the corporate sector are, by and large, being told that playing isn't allowed.

And there's no end in sight to the creative and innovative parts of our jobs. One of the news items in this edition of Syllabus IT Trends is an article called "Why IT Has Not Paid Off As We Had Hoped (Yet)" by the dean of arts and sciences and the chief technology officer at the University of Virginia. If you haven't read it yet, you must do so! They provide yet another reason to be glad that you work in IT and within higher education - the fact that there is so much yet to do:

"The revolution has taken the easy ground, the unprotected edges of the city, The citadel remains above, with the flags of the old regime flying: teaching and scholarship at leading institutions of higher education remain relatively untouched. How might we take that citadel? Not by storming it. We've tried that. We must take it from within." --Excerpted from Why It Has Not Paid Off As We Had Hoped (Yet) (Virginia.edu)


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