As if outsourcing, virtualization, utility computing, automation, hosted applications, and a recession weren't enough to stress out the average IT professional, there's the emerging threat of cloud computing to take away even more IT jobs. As time progresses, analyst firms foresee the cloud becoming more prevalent, absorbing functions traditionally done by IT. IDC predicts that worldwide IT spending on cloud services will grow almost threefold by 2012 to $42 billion. Gartner has even predicted that, for IT, cloud computing will become as influential as e-business has been.
So exactly how -- and when -- will cloud computing reshape IT organizations and IT jobs? And what should the typical IT staffer do to protect his or her career?
First, don't panic. Any large-scale shift to cloud computing is a decade or more away, says Gartner analyst Ben Pring. "For now I look at software as a service [Saas] and cloud computing as an extension of the company's network, not a replacement," says Kim Terry, president of Terrosa Technologies, which helps software vendors make their wares available through the cloud. "In most organization, it's likely to be five years before anyone is ready to change out a company's financial systems [to the cloud]," he says.
The cloud will create a few jobs, at first
In the short term, cloud computing today may actually create some IT jobs, says James Staten, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. The reason: Today, cloud computing is mostly used for new applications. And, even as you rely on cloud providers for the back-end work, "you still have to know a lot about this infrastructure; you just don't have to manage it yourself," he says.
"Some percentage of the jobs actually performing infrastructure services, monitoring, and datacenter operations in-house will shift to cloud service providers like Google, Amazon, and the telcos," says Mark McDonald, Gartner's group vice president of executive programs. But there won't be much growth in these infrastructure jobs at the cloud providers, he notes, due to the economies of scale that come from massive, highly automated and virtualized service-based infrastructures. "There will likely be fewer people needed per thousand transactions," he says.
"But if you're able to get one of these jobs, in many cases it's a skill set that is less technical and more managerial and administrative, with days full of conference calls and putting out fires. [In such jobs,] few technical skills [are] added to your repertoire," says Carole Schlocker, president of IT staffing services at iSpace. Even management growth will be limited since most of the big decisions have been made in the service contracts, she notes.
Even if you do manage to get a job at a cloud provider's datacenter, it most likely won't be where you live today. Terry points out that many of these jobs will move outside of the major cities. "Instead of running a small datacenter near Washington, D.C., or New York City, cloud providers will tend toward an area that makes sense from a facilities perspective, such as near a large dam or close to a power-generation source in a place like Idaho where electricity is less expensive," he says.
A shift away from hands-on technical work
The overall effects of cloud computing on IT jobs will likely resemble those of other trends such as outsourcing, automation, and utility computing: a gradual movement of the IT profession away from the nuts and bolts of technology toward the business end of the organization. "We call the shift the movement from blue-collar IT to white-collar IT," says Ted Schadler, a Forrester analyst. "The cloud is accelerating that movement of technology into the business, with business-process-level expertise becoming more important than ever." Formerly technology-centric jobs will require a lot more nontechnical, business-oriented capabilities, he says, and IT staffers will increasingly come from the business end of the organization.
The IT jobs most at risk are those focused on configuring and maintaining infrastructure: "Any time you have outsourcing of functionality, the need for administrative skills installing the latest patch goes away," Schadler says. "I don't see nearly as many enterprise job openings for server administrators, database administrators, and infrastructure and network people as I saw in the past," concurs iSpace's Schlocker: "Companies just won't need them as much."
Theoretically, IT workers displaced by "cloud-sourcing" can be retrained to do other work in IT. But expectations of such retraining are unrealistic in many cases: "Somebody who is smart at CRM is not easily retrained on datacenter automation," Schadler says. So what do you do? "I suspect that many of these people will hang onto their day jobs as long as they can," says Schlocker.
Greater demand for "industrial-strength" IT experience
For the jobs that remain in IT, Schlocker sees much more of a demand, even among midsize organizations, for people who come from larger, more "industrial-strength" IT organizations. That's because these midsize IT organizations moving toward outsourcing and cloud computing are looking for people who have the technical background to manage relationships with these industrial-strength cloud players. Forrester's Staten concurs: "IT pros with experience in Web scale-out deployments -- including building, managing, and optimizing these applications -- will grow in demand, as will professionals with experience with virtualization."
Within enterprise IT, there will a growing job emphasis on managing contracts with the service providers. "You'll see more positions in supplier relationship management and coordination," says Gartner's McDonald. "They'll also need people who can understand and manage the parts of those cloud technologies that are retained inside the organization," he adds.
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CIOs will have the same supplier-management shift apply to their jobs, says Terrosa's Terry. "The CIO will likely spend more time as a contract negotiator and manager and orchestrator of providers, with a focus more on business process, rather than CPUs, disk space, and cooling systems. They'll also have more time for their role as a business leader that takes a strategic view of technology," he says.
The skills required of in-house software developers will also be affected by the cloud. "There will be more job emphasis on integration with SaaS," says Terry. "If you're paying someone now to code an application, tomorrow you'll be paying someone to configure and customize an SaaS application for the business."
McDonald sees this skill-set change occurring even today: "You're already starting to see people that are Force-certified [for Salesforce.com's development platform]. You'll also see a need for custom development in certain highly focused areas that have a lot of value. For example, we're seeing a lot of people doing things with customer information that help drive customer retention and pricing power for the company and that require a lot of custom development and specialization."
IT pros with certain "industrial-strength" skills will also be in demand by cloud providers, says Forrester's Schadler. "They'll need really high-quality people who understand automation and standardized processes," he says.
"Someone who is really smart at understanding the complexities of capacity and usage patterns of all their customers at any time of the day can create huge economic savings for a cloud provider by taking servers on and off line as needed," such as through power savings, says Joshua Lamel, senior vice president of commercial policy and government affairs at TechAmerica, a technology-industry advocacy organization. Gartner's McDonald concurs, saying he expects cloud providers to highly value capacity planning expertise to support their expected growth rates.
For IT as a whole, "there will be great opportunity for high-paying, long-lasting jobs in these areas," Schadler notes -- "but not as many of them as there are today."
So what should today's IT employee do to protect his or her career? "Look for the skills the company is going to need five years from now, not now, and start building them," advises Forrester's Schadler. "These include vendor contract management, integration with the cloud, analytics, rich lightweight Internet workforce applications, mobile applications -- these are all skills for the next decade," he says.
"Try to get work with an infrastructure provider rather than an internal company system," advises Terrosa's Terry. "Develop an expertise on a particular high-end technology environment, such as virtualization or storage area networking. Or get some experience managing a SaaS provider. Embrace the cloud, don't fight it," he says.