We here at TechRepublic don’t spend a lot of time looking at what technology is going to be like five or 10 or 20 years from now. We abstain from such prognostications for a few reasons, including:

  • We’re not very good at it.
  • Nobody else is good at it either (or else I’d be commuting to work on a jet pack or in a fusion-powered flying car—as countless pundits have been forecasting for the last 40 years).
  • That’s not what you come to TechRepublic for. You want information you can use today to become more successful as an IT professional—not hype-driven visions of a techno-utopia.

Therefore, we try to keep our feet firmly grounded in technology terra firma.

All those reasons notwithstanding, in this column I want to make a couple of predictions of my own. I’m going to sketch out a few of the characteristics that IT managers of the future will need in order to survive. Whether or not you agree with my vision of the future (and I’d love to hear your thoughts), I hope you’ll agree that improving your skills in these areas will make you a better (and more marketable) technical manager.

Building the new IT manager
Just as the technology will continue to change, so will the essential attributes of the successful technical manager. If you doubt that, simply think back to how your own situation as an IT manager has evolved over the last five years. Of course, if our survey data is accurate, a significant percentage of you weren’t even in management five years ago.

No one knows for sure what the future will bring, but I feel pretty confident about a couple of existing trends that will only get more pronounced in the years to come. Therefore, here are some of the skills I think the IT manager of the future will need to master:

  • Coping with even more contractors and outsourced applications: Many of you already work with contractors and have outsourced IT functions. In the future, all IT managers will do so. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that within five to 10 years, most IT organizations will have sent a chunk of their operating budgets overseas. It won’t be too long before your Exchange administrator is more likely to be in Bangalore than down the hall. (Please note: I’m not arguing the ethics of overseas outsourcing—I’m simply pointing out that economics makes some of it inevitable.) For that economic reason, organizations will continue to resist adding permanent IT staff and will favor contract workers for many short- and medium-term application development projects. Therefore, in the future, you’re going to have to coordinate the work not only of your permanent staff but also that of your temporary employees and offshore outsourcing firms. If you think project management is difficult now, imagine how it will be then.
  • Turbocharging your project timetables: Remember those 18- to 24-month ERP implementations that finished just in time for the inevitable upgrade? Well, I hope you enjoyed them because those days are gone forever. In the future, organizations simply won’t have the time for endless enterprise software installations. Applications will be compartmentalized and done quickly, or they won’t be done at all. More than likely, it means that organizations will do less customization of enterprise software, sacrificing some flexibility for the ability to implement quickly. However, what custom application development you do manage will be extremely important because you won’t be doing it if it doesn’t provide a competitive advantage. For most IT managers, time is already the most critical resource. In the future, it’s likely to become vital. The people you work for will be even less patient than you are today.
  • Managing a small team of supergeneralists: With more of your work done by contractors and outsourcing firms, in the future you’re unlikely to have a large staff of regular employees. The odds are that you’ll have a direct staff of extremely talented and flexible generalists. For you to justify making regular hires, the people you’re looking for will need to have experience with a variety of platforms and applications. They will be able to move between projects quickly and pick up new technologies as needed. Further, the best of them will help you with your toughest job: managing the diverse stream of projects with an ever-changing mix of internal and external resources. In other words, you’re likely to have a smaller team than you do now, but the ones you do have will all be superstars.
  • Enduring a never-ending chain of paradigm shifts: Right now, it looks as if the combination of open source applications and relatively cheap hardware is going to change the way IT organizations think about application development and maintenance. However, 18 months from now, the situation could be completely different. Some company could develop a software or hardware product that will make its proprietary systems as successful as Sun was during the height of the dot-com boom. Who knows? What I think I can promise is that the future is going to see a series of changes in the way we think of IT. Therefore, your judgment about which trends are real and which are just hype will be an important factor in your success.

The future starts now
So if you think I’m right about the IT manager of the future, now is the time to start preparing. What if you think I’m wrong? Well, I’d like to hear from you. If you think the future technical manager is going to need a different set of skills for success, post a comment to this article and let’s talk about it.

Whether it’s my vision of the future or yours or somebody else’s, we should be able to agree on one thing: It will be here sooner than we think—which is all the more reason to plan now.

From the IT Leadership Web log

I often point out articles on the future of IT on TechRepublic’s blog for technical managers and their bosses. It’s called IT Leadership—check it out today. It’s free, and I post to it almost every business day.