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Your next IT generation

In the MTR carriage or walking down the street, eyes glued to the screen...punching buttons or controlling cartoon birds, they seem oblivious to their "meatspace" situations. Does a pregnant woman need the MTR seat a screen-puncher's occupying? He or she wouldn't know--their collective brain's in Birdland.

This is your next generation of IT workers. If you're lucky.

Macau was a foretaste: traditionally structured Immigration policy clashed with the massive need for IT talent in the tech-powered palaces lighting up the Cotai Strip, causing labor pains for CIOs. Macau's CIOs came to believe that their problems are common and "co-optition" is the best way forward, so they formed a Special Interest Group to share strategies for attracting and retaining competent IT workers. In the MSAR, promoting IT as a career is ongoing--the Macao Polytechnic Institute (MPI) holds award-ceremonies for high-school students and gives out certificates of achievement for tech inventions.

The MPI knows that Macau's kids need encouragement to develop the requisite skills for an IT career. Some think working as casino-dealers is more lucrative--perhaps, in the short-term. University students in Zhuhai, north of the border, may play an increasing role in Macau's labor market in coming years.

But what of Hong Kong? The HKSAR allows for straightforward importation of skilled labor, but are competent tech-workers available? A recent cover story by CWHK editor Sheila Lam (http://cw.com.hk/ezine/january/february-2012) indicates the IT labor pool is running dry.

Labor is a worldwide problem. Tectonic shifts shake the world's migrant-worker market as the West continues to suffer economic pain--about ten percent of Portugal's population now works overseas, primarily in former colonies like Brazil and Angola. But high salaries draw the best and the brightest, and the financial sector still offers the fattest pay packets. Engineering, network-design, datacenter operations? Dude, where's my iPad?

Someone has to securely connect the hotshot's mobile device to the company LAN so he or she can earn those plush commissions, but the suits may not see it that way. The cartoon-bird app works fine, so why doesn't the company-specific app? We already paid the developers so why do we need a new version?

Users tend to see the interface as be-all and end-all, ignoring the tech-efforts that created it and keep it updated. And management tends to pay most heed to those who improve their bottom line.

This could develop into an ongoing, serious problem. As tech becomes more decentralized (the laptop I'm writing this on has more raw computing power than a room-sized 1960s mainframe), IT-as-a-career is suffering. As more developers create apps allowing processes to be outsourced (not a bad thing--read Teresa Leung's "Industry Profile" stories for examples of Hong Kong entrepreneurs who use their tech-savvy to aid businesses in the HKSAR and elsewhere), in-house tech-workers are becoming less essential. And that may spin students in our ever-increasingly competitive educational environment into different career choices.

The evolution-speed of enterprise-level tech is another factor. There are few if any techs that support Sony's Beta or U-Matic video machines these days, although those were industry-standards not so long ago. The relentless crush of Moore's Law has digitized the global village: Marshall McLuhan was only half-right as a futurist, William Gibson (who coined the term "cyberspace" and gave it form) is an essential part of the mix. Computing power shifted from the mainframe-room, to our desktops, into our pockets. We can get more done with the new machines...or we can fling cartoon-birds.

Much has been written about the way young minds--weaned on digital devices--will develop. Will multi-tasking become an innate trait, allowing the next generation of tech-workers to juggle tasks simultaneously with greater productivity? Or will information overload prove too much? As my colleague Chee-Sing Chan put it in an excellent blog post: "When will the addition of a technology bring no further utility or productivity to anyone because it's all too much?"

I like Chan's optimism and to an extent, I share it. But I'm still old-school when it comes to technology. Programmers and developers need mathematical basics that haven't changed in centuries.

The machines we work on reflect Bauhaus design-principles--their rounded lines are aesthetically pleasing and they fit well in trendy cases and sleeves. But every computer is fundamentally an adding machine working at furious speed, executing programs written by people in code that looks like a dashboard to the knowledge-worker. Every app, whether aimed at work or fun, is a grand illusion created by "the man behind the curtain."

We need the creative-types, the number-crunchers and the communication-experts. But we also need the men and women behind the curtain. They are the ones who write the upgrades that improve functionality and security for our modern tech-environment. They're the ones we contact when our cloud-servers need configuring, when our IP addresses clash, when our email inbox becomes a spam-o-copia.

We need our IT-literates. Let's hope the next generation understands the principles of computing as skillfully as they can multitask.

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