CXO

Cloud, iPad, and the end of the geek era

The geek era looked like it would last forever, but user expectations are drastically transforming IT departments and the future of IT jobs.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/stacey_newman

Fifteen years ago when someone asked what you did for a living and you told them, "I work in computers," they would look at you with an envious eye and you knew they were thinking, "I bet you make a lot of money and will never have to worry about a job."

That was a time when the "IT skills shortage" was national news and there were infomercials running on cable TV in the U.S. that promised to turn you into a network administrator or a help desk technician with a two-week training course that would be your gateway to a $70,000/year tech job.

Nevermind that that promise was pure fiction. It was still a sign of a time when IT looked like one of the best jobs in the world. And, as the world continued to digitize it looked like IT would be a great place to work for decades to come.

So, what happened?

Outsourcing happened. Off-shoring happened. Million dollar failed IT projects happened. Shrinking IT budgets happened.

However, while all of those factors played a part in the declining role of the traditional IT department, the real culprit has been a dramatic change in expectations among the people who really use these technologies.

I'm talking about the employees who need to get their work done. They used to rely on IT to make all the buying decisions, set up all of the equipment, and fix anything that went wrong. Heck, half of them didn't even know how to plug in their own mouse a decade ago.

Today, most of these employees are on at least their third or fourth new PC at home. A lot of them have smartphones. Some of them even carry their own personal laptops or tablets. Millions of them have personal email through Gmail or Yahoo Mail and love the seamless online ordering at Amazon.com. A few of the really advanced ones are even managing their personal files across multiple devices with cloud services like Dropbox.

So when IT tries to deploy them outdated computers, or enforces limits on the size of email attachments, or makes web applications that are nearly impossible to use, or doesn't allow employees to check the corporate calendar from their personal smartphones, then these employees no longer see the IT department as an enabler. They view it as a roadblock to progress.

Most of them don't want or need the IT department to hold their hands as much any more. But, even more than that, they expect their company's IT systems to be as easy to use as the iPad, as unlimited as Gmail, as simple and seamless as buying something on Amazon, and as intuitive to set up as Dropbox.

It's not fair. IT departments don't have the resources of Apple, Google, Amazon, or even a venture-backed startup like Dropbox. But, the fact that it's not fair doesn't change user expectations one bit.

The result is that most IT departments simply can't compete with pre-packaged consumer-oriented solutions. That means the days of geeks hacking together custom solutions — whether it's a standard software image for company PCs or an in-house application or running your own mail servers — are rapidly coming to an end.

That doesn't mean everyone is going to be using iPads and Gmail and Dropbox. A lot companies are going to flee to business-hardened versions of these same kinds of products — Box.net instead of Dropbox, for example.

As I've written in the past, that certainly doesn't mean all of the current IT jobs are going to evaporate. They're just going to migrate. There's still going to be lots of room for local IT integrators to help small businesses, and developers to build a world that is increasingly run by software, and IT infrastructure gurus to run the big cloud data centers (and the data centers in the big companies), and project managers and business analysts and IT architects to steer organizations in the right direction when they are selecting and planning the right IT solutions.

Those are the IT jobs of the future. And, if you haven't already made the mental transition to the fact that that's where we're headed, then now's the time.

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About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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