Saturday, April 3, 2010

IT in the Middle

So previous to my graduation from college, I held a job as a COBOL programmer at a local bank (Whitney.) One of the things I noticed while I was there was the low salaries that IT professionals commanded relative to the salaries of the sales staff.
  • Having taken a number of classes (Accounting, Economics, etc...) in the school of business at my university I consider myself well aware of the difference in relative difficulty between these two fields of study (hint: I could have slept through and aced business classes while I was in high school).
  • Looking at what we did day in, day out, working in front of our computer screens in a windowless building near Elmwood, while they pretty much spent at least half their workdays on the golf course or drinking their (bank paid for) lunches with clients it seemed like we had a less enjoyable workday.
  • We were constantly having to work long and hard to enable the bank to fulfill the promises of the sales staff who would literally promise almost anything to close the deal. This, of course, resulted in large commissions and bonuses for them and nothing more valuable than headaches for us.
I came to realize that the IT department was a "cost center" while sales was a "revenue center" and so long as I remained as an expense that allowed revenue generation I would never be as valued as those who were able to actually put their fingerprints on that revenue. Naturally, I began to look for another job, and limited my search to software companies rather than software consumers.

I have come to see that humans have a difficult time understanding indirect value, and that this applied to me in that position relative to the bank's owners in a similar way as it applies to merchants and other "middlemen" relative to consumers and the public at large.

While recently listening to a discussion on middlemen this all came more into focus for me. Middlemen provide the invaluable service of moving resources from people to whom they are less valuable to people to whom they are more valuable, thereby increasing the overall value of a given static amount of material wealth in the system. Yet the function they provide is difficult for us to fully grok and value because it is not an easily observable process. We cannot see the value as it is added because the value is not material in nature. Similarly the value added by my work at the bank was not visible because it could not be seen on the balance sheets or financial reports.

I'm not complaining about being undervalued - it is possible that I was genuinely not as valuable to the bank as I subsequently was to a software company (though it is hard for me to understand fully, possibly for the same reasons as above, how my value could almost double by switching employers while performing essentially the same tasks in the same city.) I just find it curious and interesting to see this dynamic play out in my own life.

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