In my last column, we looked at one aspect of career planning for IT managers—depending on whether you are a technology specialist or generalist. This week, I’m going out on a limb and try to predict the future to demonstrate another facet of career planning.

As an IT manager, you’ve got to stay one step ahead of the technology marketplace. If you want to stay employable, you not only have to make sure your skills stay sharp, but you must also ensure that those skills stay marketable. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming a technological lamplighter—the men and women in 19th century London whose job it was to walk the streets at dusk, lighting the gas streetlights. When electric streetlights were introduced, the lamplighters lost their jobs. It didn’t matter if you were the best lamplighter or the worst. Your skills were no longer needed.

In this column, I’m going to make some predictions about the future of PC support technicians and their managers. By doing so, I hope to illustrate how you should take the same kind of dispassionate look at your specialty to avoid becoming the equivalent of the English lamplighter.

Is this the dawn of the truly user-friendly PC?
Everyone knows that PCs are too difficult to use. Without denying their vital role in almost any organization, PCs’ faults remain legion: They take too long to start up and shut down, they are too fragile, and they require a steep learning curve. They lock up and simply break too often. If the hardware works flawlessly, end users can cause lots of damage with software.

As I said, this scenario is nothing new. Industry giants like Microsoft, Intel, and IBM are spending tens of millions of dollars on various “next-generation” personal computers. They have two main hopes. For consumers, they hope to create a PC that is so easy to use that the PC becomes a part of the millions of homes that still don’t have computers. For the corporate market, they want to lower the total cost of ownership for PCs, so that companies will upgrade more often.

For both objectives, the ultimate goal is the same: a PC as easy to use as a TV or telephone that is dependable, relatively inexpensive, and intuitive to use.

Here’s my question: What if they succeed?

What about the support techs?
Let’s suppose that the various research initiatives on user-friendly computing are a success, and, five years from now, computer vendors offer a PC that has the following characteristics:

  • Instant On, instant Off
  • Radically improved user interface, as intuitive as your telephone
  • Dependability and improved ruggedness—again, think of your telephone
  • Central storage of data and most applications (as in Larry Ellison’s original NC—Network Computer initiative)
  • True plug and play (In other words, if the PC doesn’t work, you can install a new one in minutes without the user missing a beat.)
  • Much cheaper desktop prices, as much of the application and storage load is handled by network servers

I keep coming back to the metaphor of an office phone system. I’m not the first one to suggest this, of course. Others have wondered what would be the implications of PCs that worked like the telephone in most offices. Think of that for a moment, for it offers some profound implications:

  • Repair? No. Replace? Yes: Few organizations bother to fix telephone handsets anymore. They keep some spares in a closet, and when someone’s phone breaks, they just give them a new one and mail off the broken unit to the manufacturer to be repaired—or they simply throw it away.
  • Replacements are easy: The great thing about a telephone handset is that the PBX does most of the work. Take one handset out and put in a new one, and the user is ready to go. For most systems, all programming is done at the PBX level.
  • Handset expertise is not valued: For telephone technicians, the important skills center around the PBX. One needs to be able to program adds, moves, and changes, as well as configure multiple location systems and tying the PBX into dedicated voice and data facilities. The ability to program or repair a handset just isn’t that important for most organizations.
  • Little professional respect: Fair or unfair, most people think of their telephone handset like any other common appliance, such as a microwave oven or a toaster. There is no special awe accorded to telephone technicians, vital as the phone system is for most organizations. Remember that 10 years ago, there were huge debates on whether a company’s PCs should be maintained by the telecom staff or by the mainframe computer staff. Since most companies have outsourced their PBX maintenance completely, the question now is: What telecom staff?

Implications for the future
So let’s assume for the moment that I’m correct about the introduction of a superfriendly personal computer. For those of you who manage help desk or support technicians, the implications are enormous. If you can just swap out a PC any time it has a problem and let the manufacturer deal with it, a lot of your raison d’etre goes away. Are PC support techs going to go the way of telecom technicians, reduced to doing line checks and boxing up defective hardware?

Not necessarily. It’s possible that support techs will specialize in applications and will be dispatched to answer software questions that the help desk can’t answer.

As for the help desk itself, that group will have to change as well. There would be fewer hardware- and OS-related trouble tickets but perhaps more tickets on applications. After all, if the desktop is going to do less work, it figures that network applications will become more important.

The key is to take control
My point here is not to demonstrate my skills as a prognosticator (or lack thereof). Rather, I want to show you that it’s possible to make assumptions about the future of a specific technology, and then make assumptions about what it could mean for your career. The key here is to take control of your career. Too many of us treat our careers passively, as if we’re drifting downriver on a raft. That’s not a problem when the current is steady and calm. However, you’d be a fool not to listen for upcoming rapids and look for rocks just under the surface. Give your career the same kind of attention, and you’ll usually end up all right in the end.