BI: Safe Harbor for IT Pros?

Worrying about what happens when current project ends

Industry-watchers have long figured the business intelligence (BI) market as a good, safe harbor in which to ride out the current economic storm. After all, the market for BI software and services has remained relatively flat, largely because—analysts say—most organizations haven’t shelved BI projects even as they’ve put on hold or cancelled other initiatives.

The experience of many IT professionals working in BI, however, is mixed.

“As far as I can tell, the job market for reporting seems to be picking up a little bit. It took a huge dip about a year ago,” says a reporting tools developer who works on a contract basis with a state government. The developer reports being unemployed for several months, unable to find work, but as a contract worker has made anywhere from $80,000 to $120,000 a year—“above what most [other IT] areas want to pay.”

At the same time, the contractor's current assignment is about to end and the future is uncertain. “I am a little nervous right now as my contract here ends in about one month, and I have not been able to line up anything else.”

Some BI professionals report that they feel very secure in their jobs, while others—many of them contract workers—suggest that it’s a tough market and admit to apprehension about what they’re going to do when their current assignments end. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that BI professionals in North America are more optimistic about their job security or prospects for employment than are those in the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU).

Research from Gartner Inc. and other firms suggests that it’s a very good time to be doing BI—at least, as an alternative to working with other technologies. Kevin Strange, a Gartner VP and research director, points out that although BI revenues fell slightly in 2002, that’s nothing compared to revenue plunges in other market segments: “If there’s a small decline to flat in BI revenues for 2002, that was the shining star amongst the IT market.” Moreover, a recent study from Forrester Research found that at the end of 2002, 44 percent of IT organizations surveyed indicated that they’d consider purchasing BI software in 2003.

In light of these and other trends, Chuck Kelley, president and CTO of Arizona-based BI consultancy Excellence in Data Inc., speculates that IT professionals who are employed on a full-time basis and who are developing business intelligence solutions should feel reasonably secure about their prospects in the current environment. “As long as there is a commitment from their organizations to business intelligence and they are good workers, then I believe that most professionals should feel very secure in their jobs at the moment.”

Kelley cites a couple of reasons in support of his opinion, namely, that BI itself is such a young discipline—“there is still a long way to go before business intelligence is ‘done,’" he points out—and most IT organizations have seen “the writing on the wall” and embraced BI as a strategic practice.

Most of the IT professionals working in BI with whom we spoke endorsed Kelley’s view—with a few qualifications, of course. Take for example Wayne Van Sluys, a principal business intelligence architect with BI consultancy Inc. Although he says he’s optimistic about working in BI as a profession, Van Sluys allows that he’s nevertheless “cautious” about his long-term job security. “As a consultant in the BI industry I am always cautious. Changes in budgets can cause my position to be eliminated.”

For the most part, BI professionals feel they’re adequately compensated for their jobs—often more so, some say, than are their colleagues in other fields. “I feel the rate that I am receiving is fair and comparable to others in the IT field,” Van Sluys comments, allowing that things are pretty tight for everyone. “Gone are the days where the consultant can command high dollars for their work, especially with tight budgets and the possibility of projects getting outsourced to off-shore development shops.”

Most of the BI professionals with whom we spoke believe that their services and expertise are in demand by employers—certainly relative to their colleagues in other fields. Many, like Brian Dewar, a reporting developer with a Canadian beverage company, have also transitioned into their current positions from more traditional IT fields. “This is a relative[ly] new position for me, and it was a lateral move from another IT position within the company,” Dewar reports.

Consultant Kelley reports that he’s seen an uptick in demand for BI professionals on several fronts. “I am starting to get a lot of calls and e-mail from head hunters looking for good business intelligence folks. So, because of this, I feel the stock for BI professionals is [rising],” he comments.

Some industry watchers point to emerging trends, particularly with respect to the recruitment of professionals for BI projects. Van Sluys, for example, suggests that because IT professionals with BI expertise are in such demand, “the BI field is getting flooded with people on the low end of the skill set as well as [by outsourcing to] off-shore development shops.”

Most IT professionals who work in BI say that they’d recommend the field to colleagues who are mulling career changes. For his part, report developer Dewar, who recently completed such a move himself, says that he’s satisfied: “I've certainly enjoyed the switch.”

A Tale of Two Economies

While the job market for IT professionals with BI expertise appears to be a robust one here in North America, things don’t seem quite as encouraging in the UK and EU. Of the four European IT professionals working in BI with whom we spoke, all seemed less optimistic about the prospects for BI employment than their North American counterparts.

An Irish IT systems designer with a U.S.-based multinational corporation suggests that the lack of demand for BI positions is largely a reflection of the poor IT job market in his country. “In the leading Irish broadsheet newspaper, the Friday job supplement has an eighth of a page with IT jobs advertised, while accountancy jobs are over two pages, with management and sales just about two more pages. Do I have to say more?”

This and other anecdotal accounts suggest that BI professionals in the UK and the EU haven’t been as insulated from the effects of economic downturn as have their counterparts in the U.S.

Take, for example, Chris Britton, a former systems architect and integrator based in the UK who now works as an independent consultant. On the side, Britton is developing a prototype for a modeling tool. “In other words,” he explains, “I haven't been doing much ‘real work.’ This is partly because finding real work these days is rather tough.”

A product architect with a start-up ERP vendor based in Spain offers a similar perspective. “The demand for professionals with a clear BI outline is low, but BI overlaps in some way with lots of IT positions,” he comments, noting that his current IT position has no “clear BI outline.”

Finally, a data warehouse designer with a London-based consultancy suggests that the disparity between demand for BI professionals in North America and Europe could be the result of a tale of two adversely affected economic regions. “There aren't very many job adverts about for [data warehousing] guys at the moment over here; this may be because the UK is a step behind the U.S. regarding the [data warehousing] field, [but it] also has something to do with most of the City of London having [a] job freeze.”

While BI consultancies appear to be thriving in the United States and Canada, this professional reports that his company—which is the sole UK partner of a major American BI vendor—has “found it very hard over the last six months, a couple of consistent clients have been able to keep us in business, but the small stuff has dried up.” That’s because in the UK, at least, large companies are increasingly tapping in-house IT staff and training them to do BI, rather than contracting with consultancies such as the one that employs him, he speculates.

As a result, this professional confirms, “I'm a bit concerned about the future for my role at the moment, not through individual redundancy, but through the company going belly up.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.