Half of all IT operations could disappear: Gartner

In an eyebrow-raising forecast that was met with a mix of skepticism and nonchalance by some IT managers, Gartner Inc. analysts predicted as many as 50 per cent of the IT operations jobs in the U.S. could disappear over the next two decades because of improvements in data centre management technologies.

Gartner analyst Donna Scott said at the consulting firm’s annual data centre conference in Las Vegas that IT workers face a situation similar to the one that the manufacturing industry experienced over the past several decades. Increased standardization of IT systems, applications and processes will lead to productivity improvements and a major shift in the skills that are needed, according to Scott.

IT operations, which encompass functions such as systems administration, incident response and change management, now account for about 55 per cent of a typical IT department’s labour costs, according to Scott. But she said as companies automate more of those tasks, data centres will become “more like a factory,” with less need for human intervention.

However, several IT managers among the 1,500 or so attendees at the conference said they don’t think the situation is as dire as Scott made it seem.

“Like most of the Gartner stuff, it’s sort of a Utopian state. We’re certainly not there yet,” said Stevan Lewis, director of enterprise planning at BMO Financial Group, in Toronto.

Lewis said he thinks that some operational jobs will have to shift to other areas within IT but that it will affect about 25 per cent of data centre workers, most of whom perform low-end tasks.

Laurence Whittaker, supervisor of enterprise storage management at retailer Hudson’s Bay Co. in Toronto, had a more blunt response to Gartner’s prediction. “By and large, I think it’s hogwash,” said Whittaker, who didn’t attend the conference. “I think they really minimize the value of and need for well-trained technology workers to support all this stuff.”

Looking back over his 30-plus years in IT, Ed Funkhouser, director of global IT operations at Paccar Inc. in Bellevue, Wash., said the change in the workforce that Gartner forecast is part of an ongoing evolution.

But many displaced mainframe systems administrators were able to shift to Unix or Windows systems or to new jobs in areas such as IT security, Funkhouser added.

Walter Wilson, deputy CIO for Ventura County in California, is training the county’s IT staffers to handle more sophisticated data centre jobs, particularly as they begin installing virtualization technology. “It’s a training issue more than anything else, because all these people are very capable,” he said.

The situation is similar at Santa Clara University, said H. Michael Bonfert, manager of computer operations at the California school. Bonfert is shifting mainframe systems administrators to Intel-based servers as the university moves off of the mainframe, and he said the job losses predicted by Gartner “didn’t scare me.”

But, Bonfert added, the forecast should serve as a warning to IT professionals to stay current with technology.

Scott said that in the future, demand will grow for employees who have skills in project management and the design of IT architectures, and for those with business knowledge and end-user liaison capabilities.

Craig Symons, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said Gartner typically makes bold predictions in order to get people’s attention. Even so, he said that a combination of factors likely will lead to a significant number of data centre jobs being eliminated over time.

Technology changes will eventually make many current data centre jobs irrelevant, agreed Andrew Efstathiou, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston.

“I can easily expect that 50 per cent of the existing jobs will be eliminated, but you can easily have as many or more jobs being created,” he said.

ComputerWorld U.S. reporters Thomas Hoffman and Lucas Mearian contributed.

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