How Cloud is Changing Roles in IT

Every major change in technology comes with an inevitable upheaval in the job market. New jobs appear, existing ones go away and others morph into something different. When the automobile came along and gradually replaced the horse drawn carriage, I’m sure carriage designers and builders were able to apply their skills to designing the new horseless carriage (at least initially) whilst engine design was a completely new role that had to be invented. The role of the blacksmith however declined rapidly as far fewer horses were needed to pull carriages.
Smedje i Hornbæk, 1875The business of IT has clearly gone through several transformational stages since the modern age of commercial computing began 55 years ago with the introduction of the IBM 1401 the world’s first fully transistorized computer.  By the mid-1960?s almost half of all computer systems in the world were 1401 type machines.
IBM 1401During the subsequent 50 years we have gone through a number of different ages of computing; each corresponding to the major, underlying architecture which was dominant during that period. The ages with their (very) approximate time spans are:

  1.  The Age of the Mainframe (1960 – 1975)
  2. The Age of the Mini Computer (1975 – 1990)
  3. The Age of Client-Server (1990 – 2000)
  4. The Age of the Internet (2000 – 2010)
  5. The Age of Mobile (2010 – 20??)

Of course, the technologies from each age have never completely gone away, they are just not the predominant driving IT force any more. For example there are still estimated to be some 15,000 mainframe installations world-wide so mainframe programmers are not about to see the end of their careers any time soon. Similarly, there are other technologies bubbling under the surface running alongside and actually overlapping these major waves. For example, networking has evolved from providing the ability to connect a “green screen” to a centralised mainframe, and then mini, to the ability to connect thousands, then millions and now billions of devices. The client-server age and internet age were dependent on cheap and ubiquitous desktop personal computers whilst the age of mobile is driven by offspring’s of the PC, now unshackled from the desktop, which run the same applications (and much, much more) on smaller and smaller devices.

The current mobile age is about far more than the ubiquitous smart devices which we now all own. It’s also driven by the technologies of cloud, analytics and social media but more than anything, it’s about how these technologies are coming together to form a perfect storm that promises to take us beyond computing as just a utility, which serves up the traditional corporate data from systems of record, to systems of engagement where our devices become an extension of ourselves that anticipate our needs and help us get what we want, when we want it. If the first three ages helped us define our systems of record the last two have not just moved us to systems of engagement they have also created what has been termed the age of context – an always on society where pervasive computing is reshaping our lives in ways that could not have been possible as little as ten years ago.

For those of us that work in IT what does this new contextual age mean in terms of our jobs and the roles we play in interacting with our peers and our clients? Is the shift to cloud, analytics, mobile and social just another technology change or does it represent something far more fundamental in how we go about doing the business of IT?

perfect-stormIn 2012 the IBM Distinguished Engineer John Easton produced a thought leadership white paper Exploring the impact of Cloud on IT roles and responsibilities which used an IBM patented technique called Component Business Modeling to map out the key functions of a typical IT department and look at how each of these might change when the delivery of IT services was moved to a cloud provider. Not entirely without surprise John’s paper concluded that “many roles will move from the enterprise to the cloud provider” and that “the responsibilities and importance of the surviving IT roles will change in the new world.”

As might be expected the roles that are likely to be no longer needed are the ones that are today involved in the building and running of IT systems, those to do with the development and deployment aspects of IT and those in ancillary functions like support operations and planning.

Some functions, whilst they still exist, are likely to be dramatically reduced in scope. Things like risk and compliance, information architecture and security, privacy and data protection fall into this category. These are all functions which the enterprise at least needs to have some say in but which will largely be dictated by the cloud provider and have to be taken or not depending on the service levels needed by the enterprise.

The most interesting category of functions affected by moving to the cloud are those that grow in importance. These by and large are in the competencies of customer relationship and business strategy and administration. These cover areas like enterprise architecture, portfolio & service management and demand & performance planning. In other words the areas that are predicted to grow in importance are those that involve IT talking to the business to understand what it is they want both in terms of functionality and service levels as well as ensuring the enterprise has a vision of how it can use IT to maintain competitive advantage.

Back in 2005 the research firm Gartner predicted that demand for IT specialists could shrink as much as 40 percent within the next five years. It went on to coin the term “IT versatilist”, people who are not only specialized in IT, but who demonstrate business competencies by handling multidisciplinary assignments. According to the research firm, businesses will increasingly look to employ versatilists saying “the long-term value of today’s IT specialists will come from understanding and navigating the situations, processes and buying patterns that characterize vertical industries and cross-industry processes”. In 2005 the concept of cloud computing was still in its infancy; the term did not really enter popular usage until a year later when Amazon introduced the Elastic Compute Cloud.  What had been talked about before this was the concept of utility computing and indeed as far back as 1961 the computer scientist John McCarthy predicted that “computation may someday be organized as a public utility.”

Fast forward to 2014 and cloud computing is very much here to stay. IT professionals are in the midst of a fundamental change that, just like with the advent of the “horseless carriage” (AKA the motor car), is going to remove some job roles altogether but at the same time open up new and exciting opportunities that allow us to focus on our clients real needs and craft IT solutions that provide new and innovative ways of doing business. The phrase “may you live in interesting times” has been taken to mean “may you experience much disorder and trouble in your life”.  I prefer to interpret the phrase as “may you experience much disruption and amazement in your life” for that is most certainly what this age of context seems to be creating.

A slightly edited version of this post also appears here.

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