In the late 1990s, it was simply a blast to work in IT. The economy was flying high, and many analysts were attributing much of the growth to productivity gains made possible by new technologies—and thus we were being called on to implement hot new software and hardware at breakneck speed. The demand for technology workers was insatiable, and we repeatedly heard how a shortage of IT talent threatened the economic boom. Our job security was never better.

Thousands upon thousands of workers were taking night classes and attending certification boot camps to join the wave and cash in on the open IT jobs. If you already worked in IT, non-IT folks would often longingly tell you, “I wish I’d gone into computers.” It was chic to be a geek, as nearly everything involving high-tech and the Internet was as hot as an Athlon processor without a fan.

That was then. A couple of years ago, the clock struck midnight on the IT industry. We computer geeks, who had been hailed as heroes, turned back into being, well, just geeks again.

Of course, image isn’t the only thing that’s changed for IT workers since the bubble burst on the New Economy. The work that IT professionals have been doing has also changed, as technology budgets have shrunk to a shadow of their former selves and IT departments have been slimmed down to utilitarian levels. We’ve seen massive layoffs among tech companies, which has nearly oversaturated the market with workers who have IT credentials.

All these changes have probably made you question the security of your current position (if you’re not among those who’ve been laid off). Maybe you’ve even started wondering about your future in IT. Have faith. We’re going to take a look at how IT has changed, what these changes mean for you, and why IT is as important as ever to the economic health of the world.

Growth vs. consolidation
The late 90s involved a lot of deploying and implementing of new software and hardware. But as IT budgets have diminished in the wake of the economic bust, the focus has turned to tweaking internal systems for performance, reliability, and, above all, security. Upgrades (at least major ones) have generally slowed to a grinding halt, and rollouts of new software and hardware are much more conservative.

However, this is actually part of a natural business cycle. Similar to the way the economy pushes forward and then pulls back, business processes (including IT) tend to go through periods of growth that are followed by periods of consolidation.

In periods of growth, the organization pushes forward with new ideas, initiatives, and technologies. Then, the organization pulls back to evaluate which things worked and which ones didn’t. During this consolidation period, the things that didn’t work are eliminated or scaled back, and the things that did work are refined and systematized. Once the consolidation period runs its course and the technologies involved become outdated (typically when a rash of new technologies are released), the process starts over as an IT department is launched into a new period of growth.

Right now, most IT departments are in a period of consolidation. Unfortunately, consolidation work is not typically as fun and exciting as deploying the latest and greatest technologies during a growth period. Consolidation work tends to be tedious stuff that involves setting up metrics, testing and applying patches and updates, handling custom scripting and programming, and performing other activities to tweak the performance and usability of systems that were deployed during the growth period.

However, one thing has not been scaled back during the current consolidation period: security. In fact, it has escalated. No matter what other initiatives have been shelved or abandoned, most IT departments are focused on securing networks, applications, and data. Some might even say that IT departments are obsessed with security right now. But after years of neglecting security in favor of usability and convenience, the current concern with security is actually long overdue, especially now that we live in such an interconnected world. Security now touches nearly every IT job. Make sure you learn your fair share about security.

If you enjoy the work involved in deploying systems more than the current consolidation work, take heart—the next growth period is just around the corner. In the meantime, make note of the shortcomings of the last deployment that are manifesting themselves during this consolidation period. You can apply these lessons to the next major deployment and make it more stable and secure.

The growing importance of IT
The abundance of consolidation tasks, combined with the shrinking profile of IT in the general business community, may have some of you wondering whether you should continue to build a career in IT. Many IT pros are concerned that the vitality of the industry is fading. However, I don’t think that’s an accurate assessment. I’m going to give you an example of why I think IT is gaining ground and will continue to play an increasingly important role in our society, which will demand more and more jobs for workers with IT skills.

I live in the Midwest where, because of people’s conservative approach to almost everything, companies like to test new products and new ways of doing business. They figure if people in the Midwest are willing to try something, other, more open-minded, people in other regions will go for it too. Over the last few years, several large grocery stores and department stores have begun to implement self-scanning checkout terminals. These express lanes allow shoppers to scan and bag their own goods and then pay cash, check, or charge to the automated collection terminal.

For every four of these terminals, one employee typically troubleshoots transactions and helps people who run into snags. This is a perfect example of how technology continues to streamline and automate various aspects of our society. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You can expect to see a lot more of this type of automation in the years to come.

It’s also an excellent illustration of how jobs are moving away from menial labor positions to higher-level technical positions. In the past, there would have been four checkout clerks running the four express lanes. Now there is only one clerk. And these terminals were developed by an IT department (or by a third-party IT company) and are supported by an IT department. In other words, the money that went toward paying clerks now goes to the IT budget.

As this trend continues, IT departments will continue to grow and become even more necessary for maintaining the operations of all types of organizations. Thus, if you are an IT worker, you should still feel as though you are in the vanguard of the forces that will lead the next economic boom.

The game has changed, but IT continues to hold the future in its hands. Administrators are as critical as ever, and the number of admin jobs will continue to multiply and increase in importance as technology moves to automate the various aspects of our civilization. Although the work may not be as exciting right now, it is still crucial. The lessons of the current consolidation period will be of critical value for the next growth phase.