Is IT dead?

The cloud is only part of the problem

The latest news from HP should be chilling to IT employees: The company is eliminating 9,000 IT positions. James Staten, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., told Computerworld that it's probable that IT operations jobs such as systems administrators will bear the brunt of the layoffs .

For anyone who's been paying attention to the news lately or the arc of technology, this should come as no surprise. Cloud computing has already passed from the realm of hype to having a significant impact on businesses. And outsourcing infrastructure and IT has become a way of life at many enterprises.

Does that mean that it's time for Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to update their old hit and sing instead, "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be IT staff"? Is IT in the enterprise dying? It's not as far-fetched as you might think. Imagine, for a moment, that a company is starting a business today. It has a choice about how to handle its computer infrastructure. It can build a network, install countless servers and many applications, pay a big staff to maintain and update all of them, and be responsible for uptime 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Or it can instead outsource much of its network and applications -- or perhaps have them live in the cloud -- and have some other company take care of its data center, applications -- and headaches.

For a small company, the choice is an easy one: Pay for virtual IT, not on-site staff. Increasingly, small companies are turning to cloud computing and similar services rather than deploying their own infrastructure with an IT staff. Of course, large enterprises don't start from scratch, and they can't outsource that easily. But they are outsourcing more and more. And as for those start-ups, some eventually grow into large companies. If they're hooked on virtual IT from the beginning, they're not likely to need a sizable IT staff once they grow.

There are other reasons that IT in enterprises is in trouble. Even companies that don't move toward the cloud need less infrastructure these days than they did in the past. Virtualization and blade servers allow companies to consolidate data centers, requiring fewer IT staff to provide the same amount of services as previously -- or even provide more services than previously. In addition, automated management tools increase IT productivity, allowing companies to do more with less as well.

All this sounds very bleak. The truth is, though, that IT isn't going away any time soon, or possibly ever. But IT does need to recognize that its job is changing very quickly -- and for IT staff members, it's either change or die.

What is IT's new job? Providing services to make the business run more effectively, rather than maintaining hardware and software. That means that IT staff may no longer be in charge of an enterprise's plumbing. But it will be in charge of something far more important -- matching a company's business needs to its technology needs, and finding and implementing the right solution, even if someone else does the implementing. Business smarts may ultimately become as important as tech smarts.

Manesh Patel, CEO of San Jose-based electronics manufacturer Sanmina-SCI, put it succinctly to Computerworld when he explained , "IT is becoming more of a service-oriented organization, providing more value-added services, with less emphasis on [maintaining in-house] systems, networks and architectures."

And what's happening at HP is a perfect example as well. Although the company is laying off 9,000 IT staff, it will also be hiring 6,000 new employees. HP is looking for people who can sell and deliver IT services.

What does this mean to you? If you're in IT, it's time to learn new skills -- less about the network and applications, and more about how they can be used to run a business more effectively.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Read more about management and careers in Computerworld's Management and Careers Topic Center.

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Preston Gralla

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