The future of IT jobs? Not all bad news, Carr says

While some classic corporate IT jobs will vanish, new ones will emerge, industry visionary Nicholas Carr says

Industry visionary Nicholas Carr, famous for his assertion that IT doesn't matter, explained himself to attendees of a recent live Network World chat. While some classic corporate IT jobs will vanish, new ones will emerge, he says.

Nicholas Carr, famous for his assertion that IT doesn't matter, explained himself to attendees of a recent live Network World Chat. While Carr contends that massive disruption is heading toward the IT job market, there is good news. IT is becoming increasingly important to the global economy which will create "rich opportunities" for those with the right IT skills, he says.

Moderator-Keith: Welcome and thank you for coming. Our guest today is industry visionary Nicholas Carr. Nick is author of several books including the 2004 title Does IT Matter? and the 2007 title The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google. Nick, thanks for being a guest.

Nick Carr: It's a pleasure to be here, and I look forward (I think) to the grilling.

Bret: In your book, Does IT Matter?, your premise is that IT (narrowly defined as the plumbing and pathways through which data is passed and or processed) no longer provides a competitive advantage and that IT will become a commodity provided by service providers. We are seeing the beginnings of this in my company. We have outsourced device monitoring and we are planning to contract device installation and wiring in our new data center. That said, over what period of time would you expect to see utility computing becoming the norm in industry?

Nick Carr: I think the shift will occur over the next decade or two. The speed will depend on who you are. Consumers are well on their way to relying on Web apps. Smaller companies will also likely move quickly to the utility model, as it allows them to avoid the big capital and labor costs of internal IT. Big companies will be the slowest to move - they'll pursue a hybrid model for many years.

JoeB: Who will be the first to adopt such a business model? Who will experience the most difficulty?

Nick Carr: On the business side, it will be small companies with fairly routine IT requirements. Large companies who face tight regulations on data and privacy - like those in the healthcare industry - face some of the biggest barriers.

Barmijo: Nick, many reviews of your book take issue with the idea of utility computing. They note that the big vendors don't offer anything approaching your vision. You, however, focus on Internet operators like Google and Amazon. Do you believe this shift has to start in the Internet, and if so why? 

Nick Carr: Like other disruptive innovations, utility computing is beginning with entrepreneurial vendors and smaller customers. But we can already see big vendors - Microsoft, SAP, IBM, HP etc - moving toward the utility model. I think they see which way the wind's blowing. 

JeffB: Although Microsoft, Google and other major computer companies are building massive data center facilities in specific areas, do you believe there will also be a need for distributed server farms in high population areas throughout U.S. cities?

Nick Carr: I think we'll see a very broad distribution of server farms, and some will be in or near cities. Microsoft, for example, is building its largest utility data center - and it may be the largest data center ever - just outside of Chicago. One of the big constraints on locating centers in urban areas is the constraint on the electric grid's ability to handle the power requirements.

Tagamichi: While it makes sense to aggregate computing power, there is a big difference between computers and electrical utilities in that the devices that needed electrical power are dumb in many ways. Take a typical small appliance - it just connects, powers on, and you use it. Computing resources require more technical know-how to manage and operate. Compare appliances with even the most basic use of a computer for Web browsing and e-mail. When something goes wrong, the user will not know if it is something as simple as a loose cable connection. You would still need IT to fix that. How do you account for such needs in your vision of the future? 

Nick Carr: That's a good point. I'm not suggesting that companies won't have to hire, or at least contract for, technical support people - just that the requirements will likely be reduced over time. One trend that's just beginning is the virtualization of the desktop, which will reduce the maintenance requirements. What companies may end up doing, for knowledge workers at least, is let employees buy their own machines, and then serve up the "business desktop" virtually - as a separate, secure window on the screen. 

Jwff: I agree with moving work that doesn't add value to outside the IT organization. Once that systems maintenance work is removed, the focus of IT departments can be more appropriately turned to activities that add value, such as mining end-user data for business value. So isn't a move to consume commodity IT services from the cloud merely an evolutionary (not revolutionary) way to away from the 70% sustainment effort that dominates many IT shops today? 

Nick Carr: Absolutely. Most companies' IT budgets and labor requirements are dominated by the need to build and run private systems. As more and more of those requirements are taken over by utility suppliers, the nature of the IT departments will shift toward information management and analysis activities. A big question, though, is whether those skills will need to stay in an "IT department" or whether they'll flow naturally into the business.

Mbaum: The IT department is dead. Long live IT. How then will corporations determine which "cloud services" to adopt, which providers to select, and how to provide oversight in determining compliance, effectiveness, and productivity?

Nick Carr: The IT department is far from dead yet - don't believe everything you read in Network World :-) - and will play the central role in managing the shift to the utility model and the coordination between Web-based services and those supplied locally.

TechnoSteve: A lot of companies may be turned of by utility computing because they do not want their data in the hands of a third-party. How does this and other privacy concerns play into the future you're describing?

Nick Carr: That's a great question - and one I hear often. The control and security of corporate information is, of course, an extremely important one for companies. But, as we've long seen with payroll data and more recently seen with customer relationship data, companies are willing to put sensitive information in the hands of trusted suppliers. Indeed, I think there's a good case to be made that outside utility suppliers, whose entire business hinges on their ability to keep data protected, may ultimately prove more secure than the current, fragmented model of data processing, which as we know has many vulnerabilities. So while I think data security is a crucial concern (and the onus is on the suppliers to prove their trustworthiness), I don't think it's ultimately a deal-breaker. You can be sure we will also see continued rapid advances in encryption and other technologies that will enhance the security of data in multi-tenant systems.

Brian: In "The Big Switch," you talk about the idea of computing power as a utility. Doesn't this model rely on a neutral Internet? Could non-neutrality force people back to a client-server model if backbone providers (such as AT&T which has announced its intention to do so) start shaping traffic to degrade certain competitive SaaS applications?

Nick Carr: That could be a concern, but my guess is that if we move away from net neutrality it will be to give preference and priority to business and commercial information (over more personal information flows, like P2P trading). The net has become so important to the economy that I doubt that business and government will allow service to degrade for crucial business functions.

AroundOmaha: Do you see this affecting the model for how offices are structure? By that I mean, will we see companies with virtual employees all over the country and even the planet? If the application isn't tied to any particular place it would seem to free the workers up also.

Nick Carr: To some degree I think we'll see that - and are in fact already seeing greater mobility. But we also know that people like to work in close proximity to their colleagues - conversations in hallways will always be important - so I don't think we'll see the end of good-sized physical offices.

Vcleniuk: Even if IT departments and jobs move from corporations into the "cloud," this cloud will still run on something, somewhere, right? Won't IT jobs move into those areas? Wouldn't there still be a need for a few large data centers, or even several smaller data centers in various countries?

Nick Carr: Yes, I think we'll see many of the technical jobs shift from the users to the suppliers. At the same time, though, we're also seeing a great deal of progress in the automation of IT work, through virtualization, for instance. So we can anticipate that certain kinds of IT jobs will probably diminish. It's also important to recognize that as the 'Net becomes our universal medium, software capabilities will increasingly be built into a whole range of consumer products - which will increase demand for talented computing professionals. It's not all bad news.

Jim: I have not read "The Big Switch" yet, but from the excerpts you seem to be on the right track. I am an old-timer IT director and I can see the writing on the wall. Question, what would you suggest a smaller organization IT person should be doing to prepare for the "switch"? I am personally thinking about retirement, but I have many colleagues who are part of the conventional IT world who are much younger.

Nick Carr: Retirement's probably a good option. (Just kidding.) I think IT professionals, particularly younger ones, need to take a close look at the trends in IT - utility computing, virtualization, consolidation, automation - and anticipate how these trends will reshape the labor force. You want to position yourself to be in the employment areas that have the best job prospects, which may mean seeking out additional training or different experiences.

Undecided: As the shift occurs, what would be some ways IT professionals can shift as well, re-tool/re-train, where should they focus their efforts?

Nick Carr: I touched on this in the previous answer. To be more concrete, you probably should be wary of setting a career path focused on administrative and maintenance jobs that can be automated and thus require much lower labor requirements in the future. And you should also look at the new big server farms and how they operate - skills related to large-scale parallel processing, grid computing and hardware virtualization will likely be in very high demand.

Paul: Do you see a market for consultants that specialize in helping small and medium businesses move to utility computing?

Nick Carr: I do - even though I would hope that in the long run the greater simplicity of the utility model will mean that companies should be able to operate with fewer consultants and outside advisors. For the foreseeable future, consultants and other vendors focused on smaller and mid-sized business will likely have greater service opportunities related to the transition to Web apps and other utility services.

AroundOmaha: In this model how does the future look for corporate application developers? How will this affect them and what steps should they be taking for their future?

Nick Carr: The need to keep existing custom apps running, and to write new ones, is going to be around for quite a while. Software-as-a-service is not the only software model for utility computing. Running custom apps on utility grids - like that being pioneered by Amazon Web Services - is another important facet to the shift. In the long run, the demand for internal app developers will probably diminish, as the SaaS market expands and matures.

ITAntiMatter: I should have become a plumber. :-)

Moderator-Keith: Nick, ITAntiMatter is joking, but that brings up a good point. Can you give the audience some good news regarding their careers and jobs?

Nick Carr: I need to be honest: We're going to see a great deal of disruption in the IT job market over the coming years. But the good news is that IT is becoming more, not less, important to the global economy, and that means if you have the right set of skills you're likely to have rich opportunities - not just as an employee but as a potential entrepreneur, too.

littleone: When the power goes out, the systems go down causing the business to go down. In most cases do you think that any company is willing to risk their entire system with continual power outages? How do you think the upcoming utility computing companies are going to account for that when they can only generate power for what they control?

Nick Carr: It's ironic that an old utility - electric power - is proving to be one of the weak links in building a new utility. What I think we're seeing from utility giants like Google is an extremely sophisticated approach to managing power and to ensuring redundancy in their systems. But you're right that in the short run, at least, the grid is very vulnerable to disruptions - from power shortages to botnet attacks.

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