Mapping IT’s future

We received a letter last week from a dispirited worker with 15 years of IT experience. He’s been laid off, can’t find a job and expects to leave the profession. He says the influx of cheap labor that cost him his job is “the beginning of the dismantling of the American technology worker.”

Coincidently, some industry pundits are strongly predicting the demise of corporate IT departments. That will happen by 2006 or thereabouts, according to David Foote, president of Foote Partners LLC and a Computerworld columnist. He and many others predict that IT will be dispersed throughout the enterprise as part of the fabric of the company. Business users will be capable of taking on lower-level technical tasks, freeing a smaller core of IT staffers to focus on analytical and strategic issues.

Will CIOs and IT departments become obsolete? Are they morphing into new roles? What impact will a computer-literate workforce have on changing those roles?

I threw those questions out to Computerworld‘s Premier 100 award winners and Executive Suite community members, and an impressive 160 of them took the time to send me some thought-provoking feedback. The economy aside, most IT leaders remain optimistic that there will be a role for IT. Reading over their comments, I gleaned this consensus:

Is the IT labor market shrinking? Most said yes, thanks to the evolution of the technology itself. As technology becomes easier to user, more efficient, self-healing and ubiquitous, a lot of the heavy lifting can be left to business units and users, or become outsourced. One IT executive said it’s too expensive to develop software in the U.S. “Techno nerd” jobs will outright disappear, particularly ones in programming and application development. But database, network and systems administrators are safe. “They are the unsung heroes of IT,” another exec said.

Most said IT departments are permanent, but shrinking. Forget about the nuts and bolts. Ideally, said one IT vice president, “the emphasis in technology will move away from managing projects to applying information systems effectively.” Others said to prepare for a heavy emphasis on standards-setting, infrastructure-tending, process re-engineering and strategizing. Understanding the business side of the equation will become absolutely critical, especially as business units take over some IT functions and development efforts. Adaptability and a lifelong commitment to learning will become essential.

What about the impact of a more computer-savvy workforce? Most of those who replied carefully distinguished between what one reader called experienced users of technology and experienced technologists. “They are magnificent users of what others have already created, sort of the race car drivers of the techno world,” said one veteran IT pro. To be sure, the younger generations will enter the workforce with higher expectations for performance and service, which in turn will be provided by new waves of IT workers. “As technology becomes easier to use, IT becomes more complex to manage,” said one college dean of computing.

Although the future of IT seems safe, don’t get too comfortable. “The genie is out of the bottle,” warns one of your peers. “Stop believing and behaving [like] you are the only resource who can do IT-related tasks!” Another algorithm for success is to “keep reinventing yourself” because traditional IT is about to go by the boards.

As our kids become more technically astute and the technology gets better, it will put pressure on traditional IT workers to stay ahead of the needs of end users in order to stay employed. But staying ahead is what you’ve always done.

Patricia Keefe is editorial director at Computerworld (U.S.). You can contact her at