In the late 1700’s my great, great, great, great grandfather was a silk weaver in Bulkington, which was then a village in North Warwickshire in the center of England, where, for a time, weaving silk as the staple trade. Ribbons were high fashion and highly skilled artisans like my ancestor satisfied the needs of ladies for coloured ribbons to adorn their hair and hats. The windows of their cottages were long and high to provide the light that these hand loom weavers needed for their delicate work and cottages like this can still been seen today. But the introduction of the steam powered French Jacquard loom around 1820 marked an end to this domestic trade. Soon factories were built to drive these improved looms. But even that business was short-lived as the removal of the protective duties on foreign silk shifted manufacture abroad and by the mid-19th century the industry was no more. The plight of the weavers is recorded in the evidence given to the Select Committee on the Silk Trade in 1832, which said that in North Warwickshire “in the year of 1830 soup was given to 2500 poor inhabitants four days each week and in the present year (1832) to over 3000 three days each week”.
Something similar is going to happen to IT jobs in the near future, isn’t it?
As companies find that rather than employ their own staff and purchase and maintain their own hardware, they can simply lease solutions, instantly scalable computing power and infinite storage in the cloud, surely many of the once highly valued technical roles within IT are set to wither away. The same goes for the more technical folk employed within consulting organization. These roles will still exist and will become even more specialized – but there will be less of them and they will be concentrated inside cloud vendors, based in locations with the energy needed to power massive server farms is cheap. That’s right, the cloud marks the industrialization of IT.
But hold on a minute; that view is perhaps too extreme. Most organisations will still need their own internal IT function as there will still be a need to support bespoke IT solutions that enable companies to deliver services that give them a differential advantage over their competitors. However these strategically important applications will only require a small number of specialists to develop and support them and for the most part IT departments will become much smaller in size as the standardisation and automation that clouds provide saves cost by removing or reducing the number of internal IT employees needed. What these internal IT departments will be doing will change considerably too. So as changes in technology such as in-memory, mobile and cloud are presenting companies with opportunities to rethink their businesses, they also need to start to rethink their IT functions – and given the speed that this shift is likely to happen, it’s perhaps better to start now than later.
Every major consulting organization has its own tools to analyse what IT teams do such as IBM’s patented Component Business Model™ (CBM) for the Business of IT, that help identify priorities for innovation and investment by breaking down IT organisations into functional areas, or components that can be assessed both for strategic differentiation and effectiveness and mapped against spending and staffing. Working through such models suggests that entire layers of IT involved in developing, deploying and running solutions will disappear and other roles involved in developing strategy, managing vendors, managing the financial side of IT and brokering relationships with cloud vendors will become more prominent.
So, as their existing roles start to disappear, what should folk employed in IT be thinking about? Firstly I would encourage them to map their current role and skill set to IBM’s CBM or something similar and start to think about where they fit into the new future. This could mean joining one of the burgeoning cloud providers – SAP is reported as already employing over 1100 people in its 6 cloud centers around the globe – or it could mean reshaping their career to fit one of the surviving IT roles in this new world. The transition will not happen overnight and one can expect larger organizations to move slower than smaller ones, so many employees will have a number of years to plan their future.
For sure, the future for IT will not be anywhere near as bleak as it was for the silk ribbon weavers. There will still be rewarding careers to be had in IT, but they will not be the same as those of today and any family historian of the future looking back at today may well be puzzled as to what a systems architect actually did. Technology has always been disruptive especially when it arrived on the scene completely unexpected as the Jacquard loom did in the villages in North Warwickshire. But this is not the case with the cloud which we have known about for a decade or so now giving plenty of time to reflect on how current practices and processes will need to change if enterprises are to realise the benefits that it brings. Adapt and embrace the change; that way you can come out ahead. That’s more or less what my ancestor did by taking advantage of cheap land prices that came with the early 19th century crisis in British agriculture to buy a farm, which the family ran for the next hundred years or so.