TechRepublic is an online magazine focused on business-oriented IT technology, management, and support, including development, networks, data centers and security. Two years ago Jason Hiner, the editor in chief of TechRepublic, published an editorial predicting that “the IT profession and the IT job market are in the midst of seismic changes that are going to shift the focus to three types of jobs.” That article has stuck with me these last two years. I couldn’t fully embrace this message when I first read it, but it had a resonance that kept me from letting go of it.
In the narrative that follows, I describe the three job categories Hiner predicted and his reasons supporting the shift. Then, I add observations I’ve made over the last two years as I wrestled with Hiner’s prediction and explain why I think this prediction is particularly important to utilities.
Evolving IT jobs
According to Hiner’s article, the three types of future IT jobs are:
- Project managers
The IT environment has changed dramatically. More and more, traditional software has moved to the Web, or at least to internal servers and served through a Web browser. While IT used to be about managing and deploying hardware and software, it’s increasingly going to be about Web-based applications. Developer jobs will remain, but they will not be the hard-core code programming jobs of the past. The new breed of developers will focus on integrating Web-based applications rather than writing applications.
Most of the IT workers who remain in traditional companies will become project managers. They may not even be part of a centralized IT department but rather spread out in the various business units and departments. They will operate as business analysts who will help company leaders and managers make good technology decisions. They will gather business requirements and communicate with stakeholders about the technology solutions they need and also be proactive in looking for new technologies that can transform the business. These project managers may also serve as internal consultants to the business lines and be the point of contact with technology vendors and consultants.
IT in the context of broader US employment trends
Hiner’s view that IT roles can be characterized in these three categories is consistent with a broader trend predicted by Daniel Pink in his book, A Whole New Mind. Pink makes a case that we are entering a “Conceptual Age.” The US job market is losing jobs (jobs in general, not just IT jobs) for duties that can be automated or can be performed cheaper outside the country. Highly trained specializations are being undercut by the Internet, automation, and artificial intelligence. In medicine, for example, doctors are competing with online health websites (automation). In IT, jobs for routine software programming work and network management are giving way to automation, offshore resources, and remote management.
Daniel Pink posits that US jobs will shift to those that rely more on right-brained thinking than left-brained thinking. The left hemisphere specializes in logic and order and sequential thinking. This is the dominant thinking mode for the prior generation of programmers and IT workers. The right hemisphere is simultaneous and specializes in context, creativity, intuition, and synthesizing the big picture. The new roles in IT will rely on these right-brain skills for generating new ideas and business dexterity based on personal rapport, nuanced business solutions, and collaboration.
These two trains of thought (Jason Hines and Daniel Pink) converge to explain current IT trends. Cost pressures have reduced many IT departments to a maintenance and support level instead of operating as a center of innovation. Traditional skills are harder to defend. Organizations have fewer network administrators managing the network as cloud-type solutions are more prevalent. The number of tech support professionals has been reduced or outsourced, while the help desk has been outsourced entirely.
Does it work for utilities?
Consider these examples of technology evolution within utilities.
In early 2011, the City of Glendale (California) began storing digital data for its $50-million smart-grid project in the City of Burbank’s data center. The plan included storing regular business files such as payroll information. This illustrates the continuum—from a back office network, to a privately owned data center, to co-location, to cloud services--isn’t as exotic and revolutionary as it sounds.
Oncor operates the largest electric distribution and transmission system in Texas, delivering power to more than three million homes and businesses through approximately 117,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines. In 2009 Oncor signed a multi-year contract with HCL America, Inc. for IT infrastructure services to seamlessly connect and support Oncor corporate functions, grid management operations, and numerous community-based field service centers located throughout Oncor's service area.
Don Bowman, manager of engineering for Wake Electric Cooperative (36,500 customers), recently told IntelligentUtility how cloud computing is changing the face of his cooperative. In 2010, Wake Electric had no cloud-based or hosted solutions. It was running many different applications on many diverse servers with only one IT person. The company’s smart-grid initiative was adding additional applications. It really came down to the question of resources. Did the company want to focus its limited resources on specializing in-network and hardware operation and maintenance, or did it want to focus on business processes? Today, at least four Wake Electric applications are hosted in either a private or a public cloud. Driving this decision was the acceptance of limited IT resources, but the outcome is the ability to complete tasks done quicker, without having to manage the hardware.
The result is that we are seeing traditional IT administration and support functions increasingly outsourced to Managed Services firms. This trend will increase and become more accepted as a practice–driven by a combination of practical necessity and financial prudence. There are some practical considerations and planning requirements for successfully outsourcing; however, the biggest challenge for organizations is in overcoming the mindset that hardware and applications must be in-house.
Bumps in the road
This evolution of the IT environment is not without a few bumps in the road. First, there is the matter of transitioning to the new skills mix. Availability of skills is one challenge. The June 2013 edition of CIO Insight, an online magazine, reports that nearly 75 percent of surveyed IT shops report a small pool of qualified candidates. The skills gap is partially attributed to increasingly narrow specializations for in-demand IT skills. For example, Web-based cloud server environments demand specialized skills and developer/business analyst skills, while new realms of knowledge, such as ITIL practices, are necessary for delivering IT continuous improvement and measuring IT service delivery.
Second, attracting and retaining these knowledge workers can be particularly challenging for utility IT departments. A small pool of specialized skills means wages can be high. Also, the skills used in the Web-based server realm are transferable across industries. This means that “hot” skills will follow higher wage offers.
Keep in mind that moving to the cloud is likely as much a business decision as an IT decision. The people who are best capitalizing on this trend understand how to use the available tools from more than one company to meet business requirements, not just application requirements.
How can your utility begin to get on board? Start by embracing the change. Look for opportunities to innovate and break self-imposed constraints. For example, NetFlix and Amazon are competitors in many ways. Yet Netflix uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) because AWS provides a tremendous service. Amazon’s set of automated APIs allows users to build and configure massive computing capabilities in minutes, drive huge amounts of data and traffic through them, and tear them down just as quickly. The amount of engineering to avoid failure at Amazon is unparalleled; the whole system is built to allow failure to occur anywhere with minimal impact. Amazon has redundancy at every level, as well as the ability to spread infrastructure across different data centers called availability zones.
It doesn’t make sense for Netflix or any other company to attempt to replicate what Amazon has, unless it wants to offer its own service. Rather, NetFlix can focus on the development of sophisticated analytics that release the information held in the vast amount of customer data.
Why is this example relevant to utilities? Because, like NetFlix, utilities are also becoming information companies.
The examples above are some variants of cloud-based services without using ‘cloud’ in the description. Outside firms are providing increasing contributions of outsourced and managed services. Cloud service providers can deliver more secure environments than many mid-size utilities. Utilities of all sizes can benefit from increased speed of deployment and the ability to supplement limited IT resources.
This also requires an increasingly wider range of skill contributions to help utilities plan, implement, operate, and trouble shoot outsourced data center and support solutions. Utilities can use this trend to re-align IT staff roles and functions—with some emphasizing the internal consultant capabilities and others designing stand-alone shared services organizations.
Outside consultants such as West Monroe Partners can lead utilities through this transition. West Monroe Partners can manage projects with a wide range of specialty skills needs, or help you maintain planning continuity through staffing gaps in the transition. We also provide Managed Services, organizational change management for areas such as the convergence of OT and IT and mapping out the changing skills needs by role over time. We can help you get the outsourcing SLAs right. Contact us to discuss the benefits of Cloud services and the differences between managing a traditional environment and in a Cloud environment.
“A Whole New Mind” Daniel Pink, Riverhead Books, NY