Rise of the machines

For years, IT specialists sat dispassionately as one career category after another succumbed to the ravages of automation. The list is diverse and virtually endless: Typesetters, receptionists, file clerks, movie stunt performers, assemblers, travel agents, librarians and hundreds of other occupations have all, to a greater or lesser extent, had their numbers trimmed by technology.

Now, in the first years of the 21st century, it’s the IT professionals’ turn to anxiously look over their shoulders and wonder if some box, sitting silently in a windowless room, will soon send them on a trek to the unemployment line. “For many, the only way will be down the economic ladder,” says Alan Pelz-Sharpe, a software and services analyst at technology research firm Ovum. “They don’t have easily transferable skills and, at the same time, they’ve got very high economic and social expectations.”

Cutting-edge technologies, such as autonomic computing and artificial intelligence (AI), threaten to shrink the ranks of IT workers in the years ahead by automating routine jobs and accelerating the execution of advanced tasks. Falling hardware prices and widely deployed technologies such as the Internet and Web-based software may also send many IT professionals packing by allowing employers to replace employees with lower-cost technology.

“The commoditization of hardware in particular has made it very clear that the most expensive thing in the data centre right now is the people,” says Ted Schadler, a principal analyst for Forrester Research Inc. During the next few years, large numbers of smart, cheap machines — interconnected over the Internet — could prove to be more attractive to employers than skilled human beings and all of their bothersome demands for paycheques, health benefits and vacation days.

Jobs on the fly

To a large extent, IT workers are victims of their own hard work and talent. During the past several decades, they have strived to create systems that are comprehensive, faster, simpler to install, and easier to operate and maintain. Now that many of these systems are in place, IT staffs are set to shrink — perhaps permanently. “The job market is going to be hit very badly and very negatively,” says Pelz-Sharpe. “More jobs will be outsourced, and more and more jobs will be outsourced offshore.”

Although offshoring is an economics-driven trend, technology is an important enabling factor. High-speed Internet connections now allow employers to easily shift jobs away from high cost-of-labour countries, to places like India where IT specialists, including software developers, database administrators, support personnel, network and systems managers, and technical writers, are willing to work for a fraction of the salary paid to U.S. workers with equivalent skills.

Simpler software

If the government doesn’t decide to curtail outsourcing, the sudden emergence of Web services software could create another threat to IT professionals worldwide. Web services are self-contained, self-describing, modular applications that use the Internet to perform functions that range from simple information requests to complicated business processes. What sets Web services technology apart from earlier component-oriented software development strategies is its foundation of widely accepted industry standards.

Prior to Web services’ arrival, teams of IT workers were necessary to develop, deploy and manage the custom software that linked together the various applications used by multiple internal and external organizations. Now, with standardized Web services components rapidly falling into place, the task of creating, operating and maintaining system-to-system connections is becoming simpler and far less labour-intensive. “Web services is obviously where a lot of things are going,” says Ovum’s Pelz-Sharpe.

Thanks to Web services’ “create once, expose to many” foundation, even complex links involving long-running transactions and several trading partners or suppliers can be established without the need for specially designed software. Standardized Web services connections also tend to be easier to maintain and monitor than custom-developed links.

All of this means that during the next few years there will likely be a diminished need for highly-skilled software developers and network administrators, as well as the people who manage them. Replacing this large group of workers will be a smaller number of people who can plug in standardized software components and monitor the software that automatically manages Web services links.

While still in the mostly marketing phase now, utility computing — the idea that computing resources will eventually be as abundant and as easy to tap into as electricity — also promises to reduce the number of IT professionals, particularly among small and midsize enterprises. “You could, conceivably, have your key people armed with laptops, and they don’t even have to be in a physical office together,” says Richard W. Samson, director of “user empowerment” consultancy EraNova Institute. “Companies may not need an IT department any more.”

Within large enterprises, the widespread adoption of utility computing would likely mean the consolidation of separate IT units into streamlined, centralized organizations. That would mean fewer management-level jobs. Samson observes: “Why have three top guys and three departments when you can combine everything into one department that’s more efficient?”

Computing on autopilot

Even more employment trouble is brewing from another emerging technology: autonomic computing. The model, touted by IBM Corp., describes systems that automatically configure themselves to evolving conditions and are self-healing in the event of failure. A similar concept proposed by Forrester Research Inc., called organic IT, involves inexpensive computing infrastructures featuring redundant components that automatically share and manage enterprise computing resources — software, processors, storage and networks — across all applications within an enterprise.

While mostly in the marketing phase now, if either concept gains traction, systems would require less human intervention for routine operations. That would mean a reduced need for the IT specialists currently charged with tending to complex and difficult-to-manage systems. As a result, companies could abandon large numbers of redundant IT managers in favor of smaller groups of troubleshooters to monitor automated management software, notes Forrester’s Schadler.

The savings in terms of lower labour costs are potentially substantial. On the storage front, for example, Forrester estimates that an administrator can currently manage approximately 5TB. By 2007, with the help of self-managing systems, that same administrator will be able to manage in excess of 100TB — a rate of efficiency gain that far outstrips the growth in storage demand.

While autonomic-type computing represents a legitimate threat to IT jobs, the impact of such systems might not be felt for some time. The complex task of building autonomic technology may prove to be more challenging than many people currently believe, notes Ovum’s Pelz-Sharpe. As a result, software engineers may still be several years away from creating anything close to self-managing systems. “My belief is that it’s a lot further down the line than 2010,” he notes. “Delivering on that vision is going to be far more difficult than is currently realized.”

Things to come

As if Internet-driven outsourcing, standardized software and self-managing systems weren’t enough for IT workers to fret about, advanced artificial-intelligence-powered computers may cause even more future employment grief. “What we can expect over the next five or 10 years is that the intelligence level in computers will increase dramatically,” says Ian Pearson, a futurologist for British Telecommunications’ research, a division of BT Group plc, technology and IT operations business, BT Exact. “They’ll become quite independent and do a lot of things proactively.”

Supersmart machines that perform like virtual IT specialists, making rapid and intuitive decisions on the fly, endanger the jobs of an untold number of skilled professionals. The threat is two-fold. On the one hand, AI systems — should they become commercially viable — may replace grunt IT work by automating many of the tasks currently handled by low- and mid-level workers. Alternatively, or perhaps concurrently, the machines could give even entry-level IT workers instant access to the accumulated wisdom of seasoned — and highly paid — IT pros.

“[Less-skilled workers could] do jobs which previously had been beyond them — jobs which they did not have the ability to do before,” says Pearson. The technology would allow employers to dismiss their top IT employees — after draining their combined knowledge into a database — and then replace them with lower-paid newcomers.

The case for optimism

While there’s little doubt that technology will reshape the IT jobscape, change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Compared with unskilled workers, whose jobs began disappearing many years ago, IT professionals have generally proven to be more than willing to adapt to new technologies and employment situations. While emerging technologies will kill many existing IT jobs, it’s highly likely that future breakthroughs will arrive during the next few years and require IT expertise in totally new areas.

Virtual worlds — ranging from cyberspace walk-through shopping malls to sophisticated training programs that simulate real-world activities and conditions — is one area that could generate a new boom in IT employment by decade’s end. “No one out there, except for a very few games developers, are designing virtual environments,” says Pearson. “Tomorrow, there will be millions of these people.”

Just as yesterday’s data-processing departments bear little resemblance to today’s IT data centres, it’s likely that current jobs will be significantly different from tomorrow’s positions. “In 1990, there wasn’t a single Web site designer in the entire world. Now there are hundreds of thousands,” notes Pearson. “Those are all people who used to have IT skills in doing something more dull and boring, and they moved up the value chain. Now they get a very good salary for doing Web site design.”

The number of jobs generated by technology may also prove to be a lifesaver for IT professionals. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of computer software engineers, support specialists, computer and network administrators, systems analysts and database administrators needed by 2010 will grow at rates ranging between 66 per cent and 100 per cent. A total of 1.5 million new jobs will appear in those areas.

While many of the positions could end up in other countries, the sheer number of workers needed — and Forrester’s projection of 276,954 computer-related jobs outsourced overseas by 2010 — indicates that there will be plenty of work for U.S. IT specialists in the years ahead. “There’s no reason at all to believe that we’re going to find lots of jobless people in the IT sector,” says Pearson. “If anything, there’s going to be a shortage because the new opportunities that are presenting themselves in IT are far greater in volume than the things which are being eradicated.”

Innovate or die

To fight job losses caused by advancing technologies, IT professionals must become innovators and supporters rather than organizers and maintainers, says futurologist Ian Pearson of British Telecommunications.

He believes that as computers become increasingly capable of managing themselves, IT professionals will find themselves gradually transitioning into the roles of technology innovators and interpreters. “We need to look around for jobs that enhance the way the IT infrastructure is used,” Pearson says. “We could retrain people to produce things like virtual environments or new communications tools.”

Joy Hughes, vice-president of IT and CIO of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., already senses a changing mission among her managers and staffers. The school recently deployed a Web-based course management system that’s designed to make it easier for faculty members to place their courses online. “We have more people supporting the course management system than we did writing custom software for the few faculty members who put courses online five years ago,” she notes.

“We’ll be using more (IT professionals) in the future to help people get the most out of the IT that’s available to them,” says Pearson. “They’re moving up the value chain into human interaction.”

As technology grows more sophisticated, there will also be a diminished need for IT workers with deep technical knowledge, predicts Dianne Morello, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. “There will be a broader demand for people who are versatile in a variety of different areas than those who are continuous specialists in only one area,” she says. Morello believes that this trend will gradually raise the bar for IT workers: “It may, in fact, even turn them into business IT professionals instead of just technical folks.”

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