Clouds ahead: What an IT career will look like five years out

IT infrastructure is increasingly giving way to the cloud. Here's how to remain relevant in the years ahead

Clouds ahead: What an IT career will look like five years out
Credit: Diana Robinson via Flickr

Don't get us wrong: In today's quickly evolving tech world, it's easy to get lost chasing the turbulent present moment. The pace of change can be dizzying, and keeping up on everything that's emerging in IT today can drive even the most devoted tech worker to distraction.

But IT pros who don't take the time to lift their heads and assess the likely IT landscape five years out may be asking for career trouble. Because one fact is clear: Organizations of all stripes are increasingly moving IT infrastructure to the cloud. In fact, most IT pros who've pulled all-nighters, swapping in hard drives or upgrading systems while co-workers slept, probably won't recognize their offices' IT architecture -- or the lack thereof -- in five years.

This shift will have a broad impact on IT's role in the future -- how departments are structured (or broken up), who sets the technical vision (or follows it), and which skills rise to prominence (or fall away almost entirely).

Here we'll look at how the cloud is changing the way IT departments work and how, five years from now, staff and managers will need to adapt to a cloud-driven environment.

Cutting the wires

When you step off the elevator at the office or data center five years from now, what will you see? Fewer servers and fewer co-workers, most likely. Maintaining on-premises data centers is a costly endeavor, much more so than connecting to the cloud. If the current trend toward moving infrastructure to the cloud is any indication, organizations that haven't already done so will carefully consider those expenses -- and many will ultimately decide to trim them over the next five years.

Chris McKewon, founder and chief architect, Xceptional Networks

"IT managers will have to support applications, not equipment. They'll have to be flexible, adaptable, and inclusive." -- Chris McKewon, founder and chief architect, Xceptional Networks

The skills necessary to thrive in IT will evolve as well.

"Ten years ago, IT staff were physically plugging special storage cables into special switches," says Mathew Lodge, vice president in VMware's cloud services group. "Today they're allocating virtual storage volumes across the network, and some applications simply do their own storage allocation via APIs. The future is about enabling the deployment and consumption of cloud services, not installing, configuring, and managing stacks."

"Cloud services are disrupters," concurs Jim Rogers, CMO at unified communications and cloud services company iCore Networks. "They disrupt the idea that IT departments need to spend most of their time on-site performing mundane tasks. IT departments now have more viable options to outsource and automate these tasks than ever before."

As companies' infrastructure needs move increasingly to the cloud, so too will jobs dedicated to maintaining racks.

"IT managers will need good network engineers, help desk staff, security managers, and business analysts," says Chris McKewon, founder and chief architect of IT consulting company Xceptional Networks. "But they won't need server/storage engineers, systems administrators, or data center managers."

The result will be a fundamental shift in IT's overarching mission at most organizations, with the support-and-maintain mind-set giving way to a more strategic, software-centric vision for IT. In fact, the IT staff of the future is likely to need the skills of a businessperson to stay current, as their company's software requirements and the options for satisfying them will be deep, varied, and changing quickly.

Tim Prendergast, CEO and founder, Evident.io

"The days of server-hugging, deep domain expertise, and IT-only certifications and training are long gone." -- Tim Prendergast, CEO and founder, Evident.io

"IT managers will have to support applications, not equipment," McKewon says. "They'll have to be flexible, adaptable, and inclusive. It will be difficult to set standards on what hardware will and won't work. The users will do that for them. And cloud-based single sign-on will become one of the most important elements to a successful cloud strategy. Users don't want to manage 50 login names and passwords for 50 different applications."

"The IT department won't need to be onsite monitoring and recovering devices and systems to ensure they're ready for use," says iCore's Rogers. "Instead, the IT professionals can spend more time as strategic planners and business analysts who ensure their organizations are structured appropriately to support cloud-based office communications. They'll be responsible for vendor management and integration processes." And, he says, IT pros "will be educators, hosting essential end-user trainings for colleagues."

Tim Prendergast, formerly of Adobe and now CEO and founder of AWS infrastructure security firm Evident.io, sees more crossover roles in the future.

"They'll look like today's devops and full-stack engineer roles," Pendergrast says. "We'll see IT become less-siloed ... and heavily staffed by software engineers. Staff in existing roles will have the opportunity to grow and embrace new technologies and practices for the new era of cloud computing, and take advantage of the value found in rapid iteration environments. The days of server-hugging, deep domain expertise, and IT-only certifications and training are long gone."

That said, not all legacy systems will disappear. In fact, some may remain critically important to the business for years to come, whether IT likes it or not. And somebody will need to care for and feed them.

"Many project managers continue to focus on battling tech debt because of old technology, bad technology decisions, and one-off technology patches that continue to drive complexity and reduce speed," says Curt Jacobsen, principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "This battle will be inevitable -- and IT managers will be managing those legacy issues for a long time."

IT roles in flux

Here's the big question: As the cloud continues to gain traction, will companies need a fully staffed IT department? As you may have guessed, few believe the IT department will disappear. Companies will still require talented staff who can -- at the very least -- manage systems integration. But an IT department five years from now will need to keep pace with nearly constant change.

John Matthews, CIO, ExtraHop

"The more complex and interconnected these cloud environments are going to become, the higher amount of a general understanding and knowledge of how it all works together will be required from IT teams." -- John Matthews, CIO, ExtraHop

"I will say that I think the number of implementation and ops-focused roles will decrease, and those IT staff will have to switch to a strategic mind-set," says Roman Stanek, CEO of GoodData. "Leaders who were once focused on operations will have the opportunity to dive more deeply into the blending of business need with technologies, data science, data monetization. IT will no longer be the people who try to manage your database; they'll be the people who are thinking of new ways to monetize, share, and use your data for organization-wide success."

James Quin, senior director at B-to-B marketing firm CDM Media, says he's already seeing radical changes in how IT departments operate and how companies are structuring them.

"The IT department isn't going away, and the role of the CIO isn't going to be marginalized. But as more workloads shift to the cloud, the construction of the IT department, by necessity, must change away from traditional roles to those more focused on vendor, business, security, and service management," Quin says. "This doesn't mean that development and administration jobs go away, just that there are fewer of them."

Mathew Lodge, vice president, VMware cloud services group

"There will be a cross-pollination between development and IT operations, with IT teams becoming much more application- and developer-savvy, and dev teams understanding the impacts of development choices on operations." -- Mathew Lodge, vice president, VMware cloud services group

The jobs that remain, Quin says, will focus on what he calls the "shim" layer that integrates different public cloud services with a few applications that must remain in-house. These could include highly sensitive corporate (or scientific) data or medical records and images, for example.

John Matthews, CIO of IT operations analytics company ExtraHop, is a 20-year veteran of the industry. He says he's seen this sort of sea change before.

"Like 10 years ago, where we had vertical specialties around things like phone systems, we will now employ vertical experts who are 100 percent dedicated to how to make things work in cloud IT environments such as AWS and Azure," Matthews says. "Specific names of IT positions and what their roles entail will change, but the function will be the same as today -- or even 10 years ago. There will be roles best suited for the general IT knowledge worker, and there will be those that require a specialist's touch. For example, a lab manager's role might morph and be 70 percent focused on managing workloads in a system like AWS, which will provide them with additional tools to take on more tasks across the network."

This is where the cloud's supposed push-button simplicity gives way to a key facet of IT work in the years to come: the ability to navigate the complexity of intermixed cloud environments.

Steve Shah, VP of product management, Citrix

"As these projects will span across both on-prem and cloud resources, the legal aspects of data privacy, data sovereignty, and cryptography -- who has access to keys -- will all come into play as much as IT engineering." -- Steve Shah, VP of product management, Citrix

"The more complex and interconnected these cloud environments become, the higher amount of a general understanding and knowledge of how it all works together will be required from IT teams," Matthews says. "IT will still need someone who understands and specializes in certain aspects like storage. These departments will also need their personnel to understand how storage works across an entire complex cloud environment and the different aspects of what that relational environment entail. The days of simple technology verticals are over. If you want to build it, maintain it, or fix it, you have to be able to see and understand how it all connects together."

Projecting the future

Some experts see the cloud benefiting the IT department by paving the way for staffers to expand their roles, doing more development work, coding, tying systems together, and creating flexible applications that resemble platforms.

"For a long time, a lot of what went into making the business successful was the meat-and-potatoes tasks like racking and stacking," says ExtraHop's Matthews. "But the transition away from those traditional ops tasks has already happened. Today, the most important thing IT can do for the business is to configure devices and applications to maximize performance, control access, and ensure that devices, systems, and applications are secure."

VMware's Lodge sees a shift in philosophy, where IT collaborates with the business side to choose what applications are needed, then supports those applications and ensures compliance.

"[IT staff] will become the 'ops' part of 'devops' because development teams don't want to do ops -- they want to develop code," Lodge says. "So there will be a cross-pollination between development and IT operations, with IT teams becoming much more application- and developer-savvy, and dev teams understanding the impacts of development choices on operations."

Steve Shah, VP of product management at Citrix, sees a rising need for security skills in the years to come, given IT's expanding role in development and automation projects.

"As these projects will span across both on-prem and cloud resources," Shah says, "the legal aspects of data privacy, data sovereignty, and cryptography -- who has access to keys -- will all come into play as much as IT engineering."

Curt Jacobsen, principal, PricewaterhouseCoopers

"The reality is, IT departments are already evolving. In five years, they'll look more like miniature software companies, with staff dedicated to solving their customers' problems." -- Curt Jacobsen, principal, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Sean Jennings, co-founder and senior vice president at cloud-based enterprise software company Virtustream, sees new opportunities for IT staff, optimizing business applications for mobile workforces and making the most of company data.

"IT managers will help mine the vast troves of unstructured data that organizations have … resulting in increased collaboration with other departments," Jennings says. "In many cases, IT managers will be reporting to line-of-business executives and even up to the C-suite -- from the CTO to CIO to CFO and even CEO. We'll see an evolution in the skills required of IT, with increased emphasis on creative thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration."

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