The Next Five Years of IT Personnel

[NOTE: This essay was commissioned by a client in December 2006. It’s the fifth in a series of old-yet-relevant position-papers whose exclusivity has expired, that I’m editing and posting. Things for the next five look “similar”. There is no formal “conclusion”, as this is one section of a larger piece.]

Over the next five years, technician evolution and expert knowledge will become a more prized commodity as technological pervasiveness continues to increase the user-centric expectation- and reliance- on well-functioning IT. While we will continue to see more technology use, and users themselves may believe themselves to be more and more technologically competent, their actual understanding of technology- especially the workings of that technology- will be diminished in relation to their consumption. This will be exacerbated by the inertial movement towards disposable computing spurred by continued plummeting costs and further encouraged by vendors viewing their products as appliances to be replaced instead of repaired.

These changes will necessarily shift the traditional user support bar down from the traditional break/fix and interface hand-holding, to deployment, change-management and escalation-routing. User support positions will increasingly become “stepping-stone” positions for new-comers looking to get into other facets of an IT organization, and increased personnel acquisition in these positions should be expected.

This increased user-reliance on technology will create a significant bottle-neck for survivability. Increasingly, organizations will need to re-evaluate their ability to continue operating during a “technology outage”, whether because of disaster, electrical power, or “network” problems. Proper leadership in IT should be cognizant of the inextricable relationships between the organization and IT, and properly advise organizational leadership.

More than ever, it will become imperative that IT middle-management is effective. It will become critical that they work to foster technician evolution, enabling user support staff to move into more strategic positions as their knowledge grows and skills are honed. It will be debilitating if appropriate staff languish in unevolvable “dead end” positions, as it will if unevolvable staff are continually employed. The lion’s share of nearly all IT budgets is personnel, and it must be spent wisely when organization leadership and shareholders are continuously tempted by wholesale IT outsourcing. Ineffective middle-management may hamstring critical decision-making of upper management, and must be continuously vetted in their environment to ensure the proper flow of information up the IT organizational ladder, as more than ever their value should justify their expense.

With the continued growth in the breadth of IT service outsourcing options, managers of systems groups will continue to struggle with the cost-benefit equations surrounding service offerings. I do not forsee a major change in the depth of outsourced solutions, however, so continued investment in localized knowledge for specialized services will  continue to be necessary, irrespective of the decisions to farm out generalized services. For most well-established organizations, I continue to see little value in outsourcing organizational services, especially around communication technologies. While offerings from vendors may be fiscally attractive, the complexities involved with maintaining an existing infrastructure are far less than they were even a few years ago, and competent administrators can manage them effectively. Loss of control, over-lapping services, loss of integration, brand-dilution, and connectivity reliability, will continue to be major detractors for most organizations.

Organizations employing IT engineers should continue to foster influx of fresh ideas from other facets of the IT organization. There is a significant dearth in generally-hireable knowledge workers in system administration, analysis and engineering, pushing retention efforts and job evolution further up the priority ladder. Pulling well-qualified system analysts up into engineering is a win-win over costly and risky acquisitions, and makes room for pulling up administrators or user support personnel into the ensuing vacuum.

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