IT Employment

Make a plan as enterprises hollow out IT

Enterprises are losing their emphasis on the bread and butter of IT, and the need for server techs and sysadmins seems to be diminishing. How can an IT pro plan around this?
An IT pro recently expressed to me that IT was losing its emphasis on hardware deployment and application development, the traditional “bread and butter” of IT.

Server techs and sysadmins increasingly find their roles outsourced or displaced by cloud or package software, while demand for less technical roles like implementation specialists, project managers, and business analysts only seems to increase. In extreme cases, even these roles are provided by a third party, leaving only high-level IT management and expert “pipe fitters” who build and maintain robust networks designed to connect an organization reliably to a third-party service provider.

In a sense, IT is becoming “hollow” and losing many of these “middle of the stack” roles long associated with IT: programmers, hardware technicians, and support personnel. If you find yourself in one of these mid-stack roles, it’s easy to become disillusioned with your career as you see peers lose their jobs and watch your own role become increasingly marginalized. So, what’s an IT pro to do?

Down, up, or out?

While the prospects of most traditional mid-stack roles look bleak at the average company, security presents one of the few areas that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon if you want to stay “corporate.”

IT security roles range from highly technical “internal hackers” to process and accounting driven audit-type roles. Similarly, as the mid-stack layer is pushed out of many companies, it is being absorbed by cloud providers and outsourcing firms. If you’re loathe to leave this type of role, moving to a service provider or product company will likely put you in a high-volume, technically advanced environment.

The unfortunate thing is that cloud providers make their money through economies of scale. Where a hundred server technicians might have been required across a dozen companies, once those same companies move applications and infrastructure outside their walls, their cloud provider might only require a dozen techs.

For the technically minded who want to stay put, moving closer to the network layer might also seem like an attractive option. Networking technologies continue to be highly complex, and will likely remain required regardless of whether other components of corporate IT are outsourced or delivered by the cloud.

The major problem with networking technologies is that they’ve become almost too good and, much to the chagrin of the companies that make the devices, have far longer replacement cycles than most other IT equipment. Once installed and configured, “care and feeding” is relatively minimal. Similarly, management technologies have matured to the point where network staff can be counted on two hands at even large and complex companies.

The other option for IT pros is to move into a role where technology is not the sole focus, an option that likely has more longevity than a technically oriented role. The typical business analyst has content knowledge in an area like marketing or finance, and enough knowledge of systems to speak knowledgably with internal experts or consultants.

With the push toward cloud and package software, hitching your wagon to a common back office system like SAP or Oracle may keep you busy at your current organization and enable you to build a highly marketable skill, the only risk being that you may need to refresh your knowledge as vendors offer new releases or a vendor changes its product line.

There’s also the increasingly over-applied title of “architect.” In the truest sense, this is someone who can take a business problem and design the overarching combination of process change and technical solutions to solve that problem.

Those who can truly perform this task are in high demand, although so many are adopting the title as to render it increasingly meaningless. But with a track record of successfully performing this difficult task, you rise above the vagaries of a single vendor to which many business analysts find themselves subject. Similarly, data-related roles are currently in vogue, as Big Data takes corporate IT by storm. Big Data offers sophisticated technical opportunities and analysis roles that require deep mathematical and statistical knowledge.

The two-year plan

While multi-year planning of your career may bring back unpleasant memories of job interview questions or various government schemes, IT is undergoing a broad shift as most enterprises “hollow out” their IT.

Consider whether you want technology to remain the primary focus of your career, and look at whether your current employer will have roles available to support this career path. Failing that, take an inventory of the primary vendors used by your company, and similar organizations, and consider hanging your hat with one of those service providers.

If you want to transition upward in the IT stack, find an area of the company that interests you, or focus your work around a particular department. Ask to participate in meetings with business users and stakeholders and begin to consider technology as a solution to a business problem rather than a monolithic end in itself. Either of these transitions takes several months to successfully pull off, so start your planning now, and you’ll be well positioned as corporate IT evolves.



About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

10 comments
Tomin8tr
Tomin8tr

It seems to me that it is more that careers now evolve much more rapidly than previously, and that you need to be ready to embrace these changes through constant learning.   This concept is not isolated to IT.  Just look at manufacturing and even the medical profession.  We used to have many doctors who were family practitioners, now many doctors are a "specialist".   IT is not much different.   I don't believe the numbers of IT professionals are decreasing, but just the opposite.  

The sky is not falling -- pick up a book (or tablet) and read something new today.

BTRDAYZ
BTRDAYZ

Interesting article. I have been unemployed since the New Year. I have traditionally operated as the sole internal IT support for a variety of small to medium based firms in NYC. Network Administrator, IT Director... the title may vary but the role is the same. All of my employers have been PR firms. I have managed all these years with an Associates Degree in Computer Science. Technical certifications have never been required by my employers, and therefore, they have never been a goal of mine. I did however realize that should I find myself out of work for any reason, my lack of an Bachelor's Degree might impede me during a job search. Although my employer did not offer tuition reimbursement, they did pay for job related training. I attended New York University and earned a Certification in Business Technology, to supplement my Associates Degree and my years of experience.

The certificate doesn't seem to be helping. In the short term, I decided to pursue my PMP certification. I hope to have that before winter. I'm still concerned, however, that anything short of a BS will get my credentials tossed in the digital circular file. I'll pursue that online if need be (www.wgu.edu) but that fix would be 2 years away. It doesn't help me right now!

This article mirrors some of the thoughts I had to consider, given today's IT environment. For instance, why train/certify in building local Exchange 2013 servers, when most likely, most SMBs will be willing to move to cloud based e-mail? And as the article mentions, and from my experience as well, networking topology is mostly set it and forget it until majors changes every 3-5 years. What does that leave the corporate IT guy? He can move to a datacenter, which is a less visible role in an environment more focused on cost. This means lower salaries. To stay corporate, you can come out of the datacenter and focus more on desktop and portable devices support. More visibility than datacenters, but still not the highest levels of pay.

As mentioned, I'm hoping that by moving further away from the 19" racks, I can take my experience and focus on Project Management at large firms. This way, I still have a hand in guiding the technology my employer uses, without getting my hands as dirty. Or, as an IT Director, my job my be more so assembling components from various cloud providers and ensuring they meet their objectives. Which means, better aligning myself with the overall goals of the business.

Things certainly are changing. The economy doesn't help either. Competition for a role is easily 10 times what it was 20 years ago. And as corporations shrink IT departments, they are forcing one guy to do the work of 3 different guys. IT Managers with not only sys admin skills, but web development, database development, network and security, SOX ITIL and HIPPA. In a busy environment, what one person does all of these things extremely well?

pgit
pgit

My strategy is to wait for the horror stories like "the cloud ate my data" and "we were offline for 3 days!!!" to pile up, whereby smart companies will bring some/all of their operations back in house. In other words, I expect there may be more business for me, in at least throughout the mid-range future.

kotzeel
kotzeel

Good and thought provoking article. A side comment; over the years many functional business people had to re-train, re-career, etc. because of automation trends, which resulted from technological improvement. Technological improvement has now caught up with the techies and they have to explore alternatives as well. 

Over the years I have come to notice that IT programmers, hardware technicians, and support personnel on the in-house beat, tend to fall behind in terms of new developments, that are incorporated in upgrades that are slow to happen in many corporate environments. As mentioned in the article, the same stale knowledge issue exist with packaged software applications. Personnel working for IT service companies, are forced to stay up to date, because of the many combinations of technology and software they have to install and service. All this means that the in-house resource that is planning for a career with an IT service company, must find a way to update.

IT personnel are no strangers to keeping up with advances in technology. They are used to train themselves; they just must make a choice into which direction they want to move. The concept of continuous training over a working lifetime is a given in many job types. The medico's use technology that didn't exist when they qualified. The psychologist applies a new science and has to evolve along with new knowledge. And so on and so forth. The message being that the extent to which one becomes marginalised over a career lifetime, has a lot to do with willingness to adapt and  train.

beaubouef
beaubouef

Thanks Patrick for the insight. 

A key challenge in my role as an IT ERP Director was to maximize business value with a shrinking budget.  It was quite an education for a person with the majority of his experience in Tier I ERP Consulting.  There are many options competing against IT organizations in providing ERP services (SaaS, Cloud, Off-shore and Near-Shore support models).  Two key battlegrounds are ERP software development for customizations and ERP support.

Show me an IT organization whose key competitive advantage is that they are internal and I will show you a shrinking IT department!  There must be a major shift in IT’s value proposition for ERP support.  In the next sections we will discuss some of the shifts IT ERP shops need to make to stay competitive and relevant.

http://gbeaubouef.wordpress.com/2012/08/17/it-erp-value-chain/

Gaiyamato
Gaiyamato

A good article. I have found myself caught in the change in IT and decided to move sideways into indie game development. However even that industry is being squeezed hard as making computer games is fairly easy these days. So recently I began training in Medicine and Genetics, utilising my computer software engineer skills and my sysadmin experience to move into the medical technology industry.
The other possible realistic direction for myself and most other IT people would be training. Most people will be fairly computer literate by the time they are adults now and into the future. Training during their school years will increasing in demand, and if you can handle teaching teenagers computer skills then it would be worth looking into as well.

Two Hawks
Two Hawks

@BTRDAYZ   What pgit said. Thank you for your post (and pgit too).

pgit
pgit

@BTRDAYZ Yours is the most heartfelt, real human-impact comment I think I have ever read here on TR. My sincere prayers and hope for a good future for you. I can only offer that digging into HIPPA and finding vulnerable small ops that need help therewith is probably the easiest road ahead I could find were I wearing your shoes.

The other thing I'd suggest is probably not on the table; find some small, isolated market in rural podunkville where a few shrewd operators need an equally shrewd systems op... you might get paid in part with dinners, gardening help, small engine repair and other "non fungible" compensation... but most of the time I find eating, showering and getting from here to there reliably is more rewarding than 'big time' promises of riches and retirement that more often than not fail to materialize.

In any event, best wishes to you, wherever time finds you. 

BTRDAYZ
BTRDAYZ

@pgit Thank you so much. I can't relocate, but I'm in a great market (just very competitive) South Jersey, near Princeton, which puts me within commuting access to NYC (as I've done for years) or Philly. Your first suggestion is very helpful. Turns out all of the firms I've supported have been PR firms, so that's who I've been reaching out to. I know their industry and what they expect from their IT. I'm sure that approach works for law firms and ad agencies as well. I'll continue to concentrate on searching for roles within those firms.

I also have been curious about HIPPA. 2 family members work in hospitals as nurses, so once I'm done with the PMP, I'll try to get my hands on HIPPA training materials. I'm sure there will be some overlap with SOX guidelines, which I am familiar with.

Thank you again for the well wishes and the encouragement! Best wishes to you as well!

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