Skills gap could hold back blockchain, AI, IoT advancements in 2017

CompTIA finds that IT is poised for great growth in 2017, but with big skills gaps for emerging tech, and security still tough to get right

Skills gap could hold back blockchain, AI, IoT advancements in 2017
Credit: Marcin Wichary

Blockchains, AI, internet of things (IoT), and other emergent technologies are all going to be major forces in the coming year, notes IT industry analyst firm CompTIA in its IT Industry Outlook 2017 report.

But these new-school technologies are hemmed in by some of the industry's oldest and most pervasive problems: Lack of qualified people to make the most of them, laggardly approaches to security, and whether or not they represent solutions still looking for a good problem.

What do we do with this?

In CompTIA's eyes, the emergent technologies of the coming year include software-defined components (the enablers of "hyperconverged infrastructure"), blockchain technology, and machine learning/artificial intelligence. As with the cloud environments most of these will prosper in, they're "primarily focused on the back end, and [we] will see initial adoption at the enterprise level before moving downstream into the SMB space."

The hard part will be figuring out where they're genuinely useful. Blockchain's original name-brand application, bitcoin, has turned out to be only one of many possible uses for the tech, with automated contracts or tamper-proof databases on the list as well. Right now it's the biggest of the boys, the likes of IBM and Microsoft, that are making blockchain useful; when this trickles down to small businesses, it'll likely be through tech those companies are already familiar with -- such as databases -- and not necessarily entirely new applications.

There's little question that machine learning and AI have achieved prominence and are already at work enriching many different kinds of applications. But CompTIA asserts that ML/AI "will provide a new layer for technology interaction" -- that is, the manner in which AI can enhance the utility of any given tech is still largely unexplored territory.

IoT, long believed to be a game-changer, also figured into CompTIA's analysis, but with plenty of caveats: "The complexity of IoT and the regulations and protocols required for integration will drive a long adoption cycle." Add to that a patchwork of competing standards, a lack of good expertise, and threats galore -- all good reasons why IoT still remains better in theory than in practice.

Experts (still) wanted

The lack of good expertise isn't confined to IoT; CompTIA sees the difficulties of finding the right people to work with emerging technologies across IT generally. "Finding workers with expertise in emerging tech fields" made the top slot on the report's list of "factors contributing to a more challenging hiring landscape in 2017," ahead of issues like "insufficient pool of talent in locale" and "competing with other tech firms."

CompTIA's list of "emerging job titles to watch for" feature many AI and data-centric specializations: chief data officer, data architect, AI/machine learning architect, and data visualizers. The title of "cloud services engineer" could also in theory be stretched to include ML/AI, as cloud platforms offer more. Machine learning may be getting easier to grasp thanks to such services (and the open source toolkits from which many of them spring), but they still require knowledgeable developers to get the most from them.

Other specializations on the list reflect CompTIA's belief that many technologies that have already become staple presences in the last couple of years still lack for manpower. Data visualization, for instance, is not new, but the manner in which data is accumulated and analyzed in the enterprise -- and the breadth of new tools available -- has given analytics a new prominence and a need for data visualization experts. (CompTIA also sees room for data admins moving out of the dev side and interacting more directly with business units to "focus on aggregation, analysis, and visualization.")

Likewise, container technology existed before Docker, but Docker consumerized it and made it broadly accessible, spurring a need for quality talent ("container developer," on CompTIA's list) to make sense of it and put it to good use.

Risky business

Another major skill set on CompTIA's list is security. "Computer security incident responder," "risk management specialist," and "information assurance analyst/security auditor" all show up there, a reflection of CompTIA's sentiment that security for enterprises and small businesses will "get worse before it gets better."

As bad as the "headline-making breaches" of the past few years have been, big companies have shown they can shrug off the costs, and the report projects any event that "creates a tipping point will need to have greater consequences before there is a broad shift in transforming security technology, processes, and education."

One possible reason why many outfits "play catchup on recent technology moves" with security, as CompTIA puts it, is the disproportionate distribution and affects of security breaches. Health care companies, for instance, have been hammered heavily by attacks because of the payoffs involved, and they stand to be the most targeted sector for such attacks in 2017.