The IT industry and the Aughts

At the start of the last decade, technology was poised to improve everything, as long as it hadn’t already destroyed it. Our expectations at the start of this decade are much more modest.

In 2000 the world was relieved to discover that most things still operated normally despite the fears of the so-called Y2K problem, which had put thousands of former Cobol experts back into the workforce and triggered major upgrades acro ss many enterprises. At the same time, the dot-com bubble was reaching its peak, with AOL and Time Warner agreeing to their historic (and, as it turns out, ill-fated) union in the first week of January. Synergy was the buzzword and it was all about e-commerce.

These two factors created a widespread expectation that IT spending would continue to grow at double-digit rates, a hope that was almost immediately crushed following the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001 and the implosion of many dot-com firms. Consolidation followed rapidly, with HP and Compaq at the forefront and Oracle surpassing pretty much everyone as the decade wore on. The industry had pretty much settled into its doldrums before the recession began in 2008; even the hype around Web 2.0 wasn’t enough to get venture capitalists, let alone IT managers, overly excited.

All this could leave technology professionals fairly pessimistic about 2010. Labour market experts are still talking about skill shortages in Canada, and certainly another characteristic of the “aughts” was a steady decline in computer science program enrollment, but there was just as much talk over the last 10 years about whether IT mattered at all.

And yet … And yet. Many of the hoped-for developments that were first sketched out in 2000 look a lot closer to fruition than even the analysts projected. The e-commerce engines that once looked like the most cutting-edge systems in IT are now a routine and embedded part of most Web sites. Those sites, meanwhile, have evolved from online brochures to portals that interconnect employees, customers, suppliers and partners. Mobile device development, mobile application development and mobile networks have become so prominent that to talk of an “anytime, anywhere” user seems like an anachronism. Outsourcing that seemed scary in the early 2000s is now commonplace and vendor management a maturing discipline.

Perhaps most significantly, IT continues to matter. Technology professionals who might only have gotten in front of senior management to discuss the Y2K issue are now frequently brought in as external consultants or business enablers. IT projects are no longer the domain of technical experts but championed by departmental leaders who rely on their CIO. Long after they were supposed to be extinct, IT departments are the ones demonstrating the benefits of virtualization, software as a service and many other promising technologies.

2010 has arrived without a lot of big dreams around technology, which may make it easier to surprise users with more incremental innovations. Breakthrough projects and approaches to managing information may happen more quietly. Or maybe we’ll see a few more big bangs that spur startup activity or mergers and acquisitions. Either way, the IT industry did better than survive the last decade. Invisible as they may seem at times, the elements are in place for technology professionals to thrive in this one.

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