Want to Keep Your IT Job? 'Be the Automator, not the Automated'

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To keep up with rapidly changing business conditions, the way IT manages change is going to have to change, said Glen O'Donnell a senior analyst for Forrester Research, during his presentation at last week's itSMF Fusion conference. Cloud computing promises to give IT the kind of flexibility it will need to respond more rapidly to change. But it also promises to make IT systems far more complex. The only way to deal with this complexity is to introduce more automation into the IT environment, O'Donnell said.


Increased automation was one part of a three-part strategy recommended by Forrester colleague James Staten during his keynote address at the same event. O'Donnell's presentation touched upon many of the same themes as Staten's, but focused more closely on a topic of great interest to IT pros: Should they worry their jobs will be automated out of existence?


It's a question I've addressed myself a couple of times, most recently sharing some numbers from the Corporate Executive Board's Information Technology Practice, which predicts traditional IT headcount will drop by 75 percent or more as outside service providers take over some IT roles and others become embedded in the broader business.


While that sounds scary, don't panic. As O'Donnell pointed out, the good, old data center isn't going anywhere. "I'll be dead before the mainframe is," he said. But (and as Pee Wee Herman says, it's a big but), automation is going to become far more common in an environment that combines traditional IT architecture with the cloud. As that happens, "some jobs will disappear but others will emerge," O'Donnell said.


Infrastructure and operations are a single entity in most IT organizations today, with design, engineering, operations and support provided by the same people, a structure O'Donnell called "wasteful." The two areas will bifurcate, with engineering and design becoming separate from operations and support.


He urged systems administrators and others whose jobs are likely to be affected to "be the automator, not the automated" by helping design flexible service models in which multiple connections to multiple systems (internal clouds, external clouds and traditional data centers) are managed through Web services. "Who better to automate your job than you?" O'Donnell asked.


Sys admins should begin thinking of themselves as systems engineers. While the more sophisticated system design work may be more rewarding for those with the right skills, O'Donnell noted there likely won't be as many of those positions available. "We must be realistic and not sugarcoat it," he said. "Some of them will have to go."


This will be "pretty cool from a geek perspective," he added, because "real geeks love change."


He offered a list of emerging IT positions:

  • Business relationship manager
  • Automation architect
  • Service designer
  • Service manager
  • Vendor manager
  • Process owner


The automation architect, who O'Donnell said will help drive automation by performing tasks such as creating configuration management systems, will require the most obvious technical chops. Some of the other roles, especially business relationship manager, service manager, vendor manager and process owner, may be just as likely to come from the business ranks as from IT. "Some of the geeks may need to start wearing ties," O'Donnell said.


Ultimately the trend is about making decisions based on business needs rather than technology, O'Donnell said. While that "may be bad for some geeks, it will be good for the organization."


In an opinion piece for IT Business Edge, rPath CMO Jake Sorofman made a similar point, writing that IT pros must shift from performing manual tasks and writing scripts to defining and encoding policies that will yield standardized models to execute low-level automation. He wrote:


It's a truism that growing complexity will always result in another layer of abstraction that moves IT roles away from low-level technical detail and closer to the business itself. Much like developers who have progressively evolved up the stack, IT personnel will need to get out of the weeds and allow automation and processes to mature. In doing so, they won't sacrifice their roles-or their souls. Like software developers, their roles will evolve and they'll find themselves more productive than ever before.