There's an old story that runs in engineering circles about a group of engineers who were laid off from a major manufacturer. To protest their condition, they formed picket lines in public with signs that read "Will build a bridge for food." The context ran that engineering was a highly specialized skill requiring years of training, but the lack of projects forced these people on the streets - because there was nothing left to build.
Technology had caught up with a specialized skill - leaving those who built the discipline behind to start new careers. In the real world - this happened with the aerospace layoffs and mergers of the early 90's that caught McDonnell Douglas engineers in the midst of a transformational economy.
Those layoffs, in a economy with 10% unemployment, were a devestating blow to the field of aeronautical engineering. Men who banked their livelihoods on having a job for the rest of their lives found themselves obsolete - forced to change or left to fail with nothing when the company (now Boeing) did not hire them back.
Can this happen to Information Technology? It already is happening, and you're reading the results. This blog, written on a Movable Type Platform, allows me to mimic the development skills that programmers used in the mid-90's to create personal websites.
This site, with my little skill, can now be built without using any of the old computer languages, but more important, none of the new. I build in a WYSIWYG editor - and this is a feature, not a bug of the new economy. The design of the site is still poor, but that's my failing as a designer. The tools are still here. And if I take the time - I can change this site without learning the code. The technology allows me to skip learning the highly specialized skills of a developer.
Jim McGee at tthe Enterprise Systems site has a good article on Design as the important skill in a 21st century economy. (I pulled this from his column at Corante, Future Tense.
My high-school friend went on to become a successful chemical engineer. He's definitely a smart guy. His mantra was “just give me the equation.” Give him the formula and he’d return with the right answer. Ted was successful in a school setting and he’s been successful as an engineer. While he’d probably still be successful in school, I don’t believe he’d do so well in the economic world we live in now. While execution was the signature skill of the 20th century, success in the 21st century will depend on our design skill: our ability to invent and craft new solutions to our problems.
My wife is a designer. From her I've learned quite a bit about how designers approach solutions, but also how the failure of developers and programmers to address design has led to their planned obsolescence in the history of the web.
I have three words for you. Object Oriented Design. What's the point of OOD if it is not to simplify the coding process? Software developers, in creating these wonderful tools that allow untrained amateurs like myself to post to the web, have put themselves in a position where fewer and fewer developers are needed.
This trend is not limited to software Desktop technicians and Help Desk employees are finding their salaries crunched as the need for truly experienced personnel is minimal at best. Why hire someone for $60,000 when a kid out of school can do the job as part of their normal work for $30,000? Experiences with computers at an early age means kids are Power users when their parents are sill fumbling to send out an e-mail list. If the kids know more than the Help Desk techs, how can you justify raises, salaries and promotions inside a corporation?
You can't, which is why infrastructure projects are increasingly outsourced to specialty companies who only do infrastructure, while experiend and expensive network techs are finding their only hope of making the good money is starting their own business to server as a outsourced version of IT for smaller companies.
This topic grew beyond my ability to address in a single column, but the goal of the column is to highlight the coming obsolescence of many of the fields in technology we take for granted.
The future of large corporate IT departments will be for business analysts, project managers, and designers - souped up versions, to be sure, but soft skills emphasized over hard skills with the exception of a few very talented technical wizards. Your comments are welcome, but there is far more to this now that I got it started.