There's a general anxiety that has settled over much of the IT profession in recent years. It's a stark contrast to the situation just over a decade ago. At the end of the 1990s, IT pros were the belles of the ball. The IT labor shortage regularly made headlines and IT pros were able to command excellent salaries by getting training and certification, job hopping, and, in many cases, being the only qualified candidate for a key position in a thinly-stretched job market. At the time, IT was held up as one of the professions of the future, where more and more of the best jobs would be migrating as computer-automated processes replaced manual ones.
Unfortunately, that idea of the future has disappeared, or at least morphed into something much different.
The glory days when IT pros could name their ticket evaporated when the Y2K crisis passed and then the dot com implosion happened. Suddenly, companies didn't need as many coders on staff. Suddenly, there were a lot fewer startups buying servers and hiring sysadmins to run them.
Around the same time, there was also a general backlash against IT in corporate America. Many companies had been throwing nearly-endless amounts of money at IT projects in the belief that tech was the answer to all problems. Because IT had driven major productivity improvements during the 1990s, a lot of companies over-invested in IT and tried to take it too far too fast. As a result, there were a lot of very large, very expensive IT projects that crashed and burned.
When the recession of 2001 hit, these massively overbuilt IT departments were huge targets for budget cuts and many of them got hit hard. As the recession dragged out in 2002 and 2003, IT pros mostly told each other that they needed to ride out the storm and that things would bounce back. But, a strange thing happened. IT budgets remained flat year after year. The rebound never happened.
Fast forward to 2011. Most IT departments are a shadow of their former selves. They've drastically reduced the number of tech support professionals, or outsourced the help desk entirely. They have a lot fewer administrators running around to manage the network and the servers, or they've outsourced much of the data center altogether. These were the jobs that were at the center of the IT pro boom in 1999. Today, they haven't totally disappeared, but there certainly isn't a shortage of available workers or a high demand for those skill sets.
That's because the IT environment has changed dramatically. More and more of traditional software has moved to the web, or at least to internal servers and served through a web browser. Many technophobic Baby Boomers have left the workforce and been replaced by Millennials who not only don't need as much tech support, but often want to choose their own equipment and view the IT department as an obstacle to productivity. In other words, today's users don't need as much help as they used to. Cynical IT pros will argue this until they are blue in the face, but it's true. Most workers have now been using technology for a decade or more and have become more proficient than they were a decade ago. Plus, the software itself has gotten better. It's still horribly imperfect, but it's better.
So where does that leave today's IT professionals? Where will the IT jobs of the future be?
Let's face it, all but the largest enterprises would prefer to not to have any IT professionals on staff, or at least as few as possible. It's nothing personal against geeks, it's just that IT pros are expensive and when IT departments get too big and centralized they tend to become experts at saying, "No." They block more progress than they enable. As a result, we're going to see most of traditional IT administration and support functions outsourced to third-party consultants. This includes a wide range from huge multi-national consultancies to the one person consultancy who serves as the rented IT department for local SMBs. I'm also lumping in companies like IBM, HP, Amazon AWS, and Rackspace, who will rent out both data center capacity and IT professionals to help deploy, manage, and troubleshoot solutions. Many of the IT administrators and support professionals who currently work directly for corporations will transition to working for big vendors or consultancies in the future as companies switch to purchasing IT services on an as-needed basis in order to lower costs, get a higher level of expertise, and get 24/7/365 coverage.
2. Project managers
Most of the IT workers that survive and remain as employees in traditional companies will be project managers. They will not be part of a centralized IT department, but will be spread out in the various business units and departments. They will be business analysts who will help the company leaders and managers make good technology decisions. They will gather business requirements and communicate with stakeholders about the technology solutions they need, and will also be proactive in looking for new technologies that can transform the business. These project managers will also serve as the company's point of contact with technology vendors and consultants. If you look closely, you can already see a lot of current IT managers morphing in this direction.
By far, the area where the largest number of IT jobs is going to move is into developer, programmer, and coder jobs. While IT used to be about managing and deploying hardware and software, it's going to increasingly be about web-based applications that will be expected to work smoothly, be self-evident, and require very little training or intervention from tech support. The other piece of the pie will be mobile applications -- both native apps and mobile web apps. As I wrote in my article, We're entering the decade of the developer, the current changes in IT are "shifting more of the power in the tech industry away from those who deploy and support apps to those who build them." This trend is already underway and it's only going to accelerate over the next decade.
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 upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.