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.
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 over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.