CW@50: A look at life on the job in IT through cartoons

Unforgiving boom-and-bust cycles, skills that go stale overnight, outsourcing: IT careers aren't all signing bonuses, Ping-Pong tables and beanbag chairs. Here’s a look at life on the job in IT through the years, from the pen of our editorial cartoonist, John Klossner.

Cartoon from 2013: Hiring manager looking for applicants
February 2013: Managing expectations

People in other walks of life may tend to think that tech careers are all about high salaries, signing bonuses, flexible schedules and state-of-the-art offices boasting beanbag chairs, Ping-Pong tables, espresso makers and unlimited artisanal snacks.

But hardworking IT pros know otherwise.

Life in IT can be a pressure cooker, where salaries and job opportunities soar and nosedive at the whim of boom-and-bust cycles, today’s hot skill is tomorrow’s career albatross, and the specter of outsourcing looms over every seemingly secure job.

We've covered all the ups and downs of the IT labor market in our first 50 years, and life on the job has certainly provided our editorial cartoonist, John Klossner, with plenty of ideas. Enjoy this look back at how things have (and haven't) changed over the years.

Cartoon from 1999: Is the pizza delivery guy considered an IT employee?
June 1999: Who qualifies as an IT employee?

In the late 1990s, with Microsoft embroiled in what ended up being an eight-year legal battle with long-term contractors known as “permatemps,” IT employers started to wonder whether it might be a mistake to classify workers as contractors if they worked alongside full-time employees and performed the same functions. And a June 1999 editorial cartoon suggested that it might not be easy to decide where to draw the line.

Cartoon from 1999: Manager touts
November 1999: Hard work is its own reward

Like any profession, IT has its ups and downs and unique challenges, but no matter what the circumstances, enthusiastic hiring managers always seem to find a way to look on the bright side.

Cartoon from 2001: Only job available is taking down last year's
April 2001: Boom and bust

Bubbles — and the inevitability of the fact that they will one day burst — seem to be part of life in IT. The end of the dot-com boom in the early 2000s may have been particularly disheartening, though.

Cartoon from 2001: IT pros reminisce about the good old days of 1999.
October 2001: A new reality

Hard on the heels of the dot-com bust, the IT labor market — and the economy as a whole — suffered another blow with the tragic events of 9/11. As IT pros adjusted to the the new reality, they wistfully recalled the salad days of the previous century.

Cartoon from 2001:
December 2001: Tedium is not a four-letter word

When times get tough, the tough look at their careers in a new light.

Cartoon from 2002: Man using walker is ID'd as
March 2002: Cobol is dead, long live Cobol

News flash: There’s a shortage of IT professionals with Cobol expertise and other mainframe skills.

Or maybe you’ve heard that before. We’ve been reporting since at least 2002 that Cobol skills were in short supply and that the situation was going to get worse because older mainframe experts would soon be retiring and young programmers had no interest in learning mainframe skills.

That might not seem like much of a problem, but as we pointed out in 2006, Cobol was decidedly not dead yet, with more than 60% of respondents to a Computerworld survey of IT managers saying that their organizations still used Cobol applications. That percentage actually rose slightly in a similar survey we conducted six years later, after the Cobol brain drain had begun in earnest. And in 2014, we reported on some hard-core fans — organizations that plan to keep using the language for as long as they possibly can despite the shortage of workers with Cobol and mainframe skills.

The venerable programming language has even been in the headlines just this spring, when we reported that it may fall to Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to eliminate Cobol and other legacy languages from the the federal government’s computer systems.

Oh, and if you’ve been reading this and saying, “It’s COBOL, not Cobol!” here’s our answer.

Cartoon from 2010:
December 2010: Outsourcing as economic barometer

As the layoffs of the great recession started to taper off, job prospects started to improve modestly for some IT professionals. But employers at the time were looking for people who had business acumen and “soft skills” in addition to technical chops. One observer summed up the employers’ viewpoint this way: “If you’re just going to offer me technical skills, I might as well go offshore and get them a lot cheaper.”

Cartoon from 2014: Younger IT pros question self-employment.
January 2014: Who needs full-time work?

Think the “gig economy” is a new idea? Nope. It’s just a new name for an old idea: self-employment. There was a big uptick in self-employment among IT workers in late 2013, but it wasn’t driven so much by entrepreneurial-minded tech pros seeking freedom as it was by employers that were reluctant to hire full-time workers.

Cartoon from 2014: Tech employers with many job postings but few hirings.
February 2014: Smoke, mirrors and job postings

The IT labor market isn’t always what it seems to be. And job postings may be a key cause of false impressions: Companies may tout job openings in thousands of postings a year, but the number of people they actually hire is often far smaller, as they fill jobs internally, outsource the work, postpone hirings or withdraw job openings.

Cartoon from 2015: IT pros in old folks home at age 35.
September 2015: Out to pasture at 35

There’s no shortage of controversy surrounding the use of H-1B visas, and in 2015 another possible source of discord came to light: age discrimination. The short-term work visas go primarily to people under 35. A look at government data from 2014 revealed that, of all the H-1B applications approved by the U.S.that year, nearly 75% were for people who were 34 years old or younger. Of that group, 38% were 29 or younger.

Self-portrait of cartoonist John Klossner
Meet our cartoonist

John Klossner has been drawing editorial cartoons for Computerworld since 1996. His cartoons and drawings have also appeared in a wide variety of other print and electronic publications, including The New Yorker, Barron’s, Federal Computer Week and The Wall Street Journal.

John’s work can also be seen on his website, at www.jklossner.com.