Saturday, 16 October 2010

Why is Oman Converting IT Specialists to Salespeople?

I have gone through a lot of change and self-development during the past 2-3 months and continue to do so. When you change jobs, countries or when you spend time in an academic environment, all this occurs naturally.

More than a thousand students graduate each year from universities and colleges in Oman with degrees in Information Technology related fields, yet only a handful end up growing in the Omani IT Industry; majority of students end up working in non-IT or trivial jobs that are stable but contribute nothing to the IT industry in Oman.

Who to blame?
Who do we blame? The students? The universities? The government? The private sector?

Having graduated form two IT programs in Oman, and working for significant periods in both the government and the private sector, I feel the primary culprit are the Omani students themselves. Sure, others may also contribute directly or indirectly, but the main problem lies within students and their mindsets. Perhaps government policy and better education may improve this, but in the short term, if students do no accept the available opportunities, how would universities and government officials get encouraged to do more? Besides, the basic infrastructure and systems are already in place in form of colleges, government awards and policies, ITA, KOM and so on.

Career paths?
In brief, if you observe the current situation in the Omani IT industry, you can broadly identify 4 stakeholders: Government, Businesses, Academia and Workforce.

Work for the government and it is highly unlikely that you will be able to learn much or have a shot at career growth. They simply purchase everything from the private sector and in-house projects are limited. ITA, the government agency in charge of promoting IT in Oman, itself awards all its major projects to foreign companies. The much awaited government portal (oman.om) was developed by a Singaporean company.

Private sector can be further divided into IT service provider (they make money through IT sales) or IT support provider (these are departments that support the principle departments, as seen in banks, telecommunication companies and so on; not so different than IT departments in government entities). Academia is another area altogether.

Of course, the situation may slightly defer depending whether you intend to grow in SW, HW, networking or other sub-specializations. Nevertheless, the same patterns are found in general.

Students and IT specialist should enter private companies that provide IT solutions and services, if real work experience and growth within IT is desired. As mentioned, in reality they seldom do, especially in software related jobs. This is where the real future is and this is where room for innovation exists.

Case Studies
Let us briefly consider two real life characters; one (myself) persisted with IT solution providers in Oman, albeit better opportunities elsewhere, and the second chose to go with the flow and gave up IT as a career (most do this in Oman and, I assume, in the Middle East).

After working for the government for some time, I joined a private company and for a few years, I made sure I get a holistic view of the industry, with emphasis on software, of course. I was part of different projects and soon realized how chaotic the approach was to software projects in the country. This gave me confidence and recently I designed and managed a significant software project, that too with a team of young graduates from Omani colleges. It wasn't easy and I had to literally get the project myself in order to get the chance to deliver it, but because I had a clear goals, I succeeded. Management tried to move me to sales because of my communication skills, but the closest I got to it was pre-sales. Along with my team, we successfully delivered the project in time and it runs in a live environment now. Involvement in different phases of other software projects also added a lot of value. There might have been better job offers but surely non could compete with this job in the private sector; the experience I gained is priceless, if nothing else, youngsters should take up these jobs as a stepping stone.

Now, let us look at the second case. As I mentioned before, majority of IT graduates end up in different sectors and add trivial or no value to the IT industry. I share just one story here of a gentleman and friend quite older than myself, who chose what I call the "easy way out". He had a lot of potential and at a young age, he was able to write trivial programs and develop simple websites; quite an achievement considering we lived in a country in late 1990s where few had personal computers at home and schools offered no real training.

This person moved from job to job. He had the potential to contribute a lot to the IT industry in Oman and he proudly promised the same. However, today, he works in a decent private company but has no relation to IT anymore. Why would such a promising young person end up in a marketing or customer relations position after a decade or struggle in IT? Why were his communication skills utilized but limited IT skills never fostered? I suppose you can only blame him for taking the "easy way out". He chose to become a salesman-variant and his company, like Oman, still relies on foreigners to run the IT industry.

Comparison and Hope
Unless we do not persist with IT, a field with so much potential and one that can help build a knowledge-based economy in Oman, as the leadership hopes for, things will never change. Do a quick survey of IT service provider in Oman and you will realize the Omanization rate is less than 10%. These companies hire Omanis to fill administrative jobs and give them IT-related titles to fool the Ministry of Manpower. The rate is even lower in software-related job. Government, the main purchaser, must also change its habits of working with corrupted salespeople and buying foreign solutions. While this is normal for infrastructure, there is no reason to prefer software developers from abroad, unless of course, no solutions exist locally, which I must admit, is the case sometimes.

Having spend some time in Europe now, observing both the academia and industry, I see a massive difference in mindset. Confident youngsters start their own companies and sell unique solutions. Many have started selling internationally in a short period of time. The government here does not buy off-the-shelf solution or hire foreign companies, but rather selects cheaper local solutions, saving money and helping develop the local talent

Student in Oman are equally smart, they just need to persist with IT and broaden their horizons. They must innovate and break-free from the terrible bulletin board, aka discussion forum, addiction. The friend of mine who gave up IT for an easier marketing job, naively feels today that he has fulfilled his promise of adding significant value to the IT industry in Oman by starting a bulletin board, ignoring the fact that tens of others exist. Bulletin boards won't bring change, innovation and solid projects would. In my personal view, software solutions in particular can enable change; unlike infrastructure solutions, they are easier and cheaper to develop and majority of IT programs in Omani colleges teach the basics for the same. India transformed its economy through software not so long ago, and working with them, all they did well is persisted with it!

Perhaps, in a future post, I will write more about how we could stimulate change in mindset and share more about what I did and intend to do in future.