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It's Autonomic

There is no denying that the nature of the business is changing. The software engineer who enjoyed the craft work of designing a fix and then writing the code is becoming an endangered species, replaced by the more automated process of moving a project through an assembly line of workers who function like cogs in a machine. In this environment, we've seen the rise of disciplines such as extreme programming, a type of software development that involves the entire team working together on a daily basis in the presence of a business representative, and every contributor is an integral part of the project. Autonomic computing, for its part, takes even more people out of the equation through the development of such technologies as self-healing software and hardware, root-cause discovery, and correction and IT service provisioning. According to a new study from Gartner Inc., within the next ten years we will likely see autonomics applied to general-purpose grid computing, service billing and service policy managing systems that enable companies to shift IT resources to meet their changing business needs at the lowest cost. The only area in which CGE&Y's Parkinson predicts an increased demand for IT workers is for "IT plumbers"—skilled experts who can come in and fix the automatic self-fixing systems.

Throughout history, technology has helped drive change—change that has often dislocated workers. In his 1995 book The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin went so far as to predict that radical automation of production and services would lead to an enduring drop in the availability of jobs as we know them. But history has more aptly shown that the disintermediation of some by technological advancement often leads to new opportunities for others. One has only to look at the printing trade to see the impact. In the 1400s, scribes were displaced by the invention of the movable-type press, a technological advancement that went on to open up previously unfathomed opportunities for printers and typesetters. Those tradesmen were then displaced by cold type and desktop printing. The creation of mass-production techniques to build automobiles revolutionized manufacturing processes for other major industries, and then we found that in emerging markets production could be done faster, better, cheaper.

In the information industry, technological advancement has radically changed the way businesses do business. So it is ironic that some of the architects of these changes are now being displaced by their very own creations—the development of software that needs fewer systems administrators, for instance, or the ubiquity of common platforms that can be tended to in India as easily as in Indiana, in San Jose, Costa Rica, as easily as in San Jose, Calif. "What's happening is that we're going through the commoditization of virtually everything. It started with hardware. It's moved to software. And now it's moving to services," says John Sculley, the former Apple Computer Inc. CEO who now sits on the board of NextSource Inc., a New York City company that develops Web-based human capital management software. Among their products is the People Blue Book. Modeled after the Kelley Blue Book, which lists average prices for certain models of automobiles, the People Blue Book shows applicants, agencies and employers current, hourly, daily and yearly rates for consultant, temporary, project-based and full-time positions. Another product, The People Ticker, collects real-time information from a variety of Web sources to provide employers with market rates for specific jobs in different locations. "Companies have to find the least-cost way of delivering their products and services," Sculley notes. "What it means for workers in the U.S. is that they need to keep refreshing and improving their skills. More and more, we're moving toward a system of certified IT workers. Certified in terms of knowing that when you hire somebody, they will be able to do the job you need them to do."

Meanwhile, the nature of IT work is changing. More common platforms have lent themselves to more modular work, pieces of which can be done by different workers—often in different parts of the globe. Thaddeus Arroyo, the CIO of Cingular Wireless, has consolidated his company's reliance on 1,400 different enterprise applications to 300 smaller, more efficient operations, and in the process developed a workforce in which new projects move from skill to skill with a project manager instead of relying on one master craftsman to tackle the entire task, from conceptualization through development. Managers can choose various combinations of full-time employees, contract workers and projects that can be sent overseas at great cost savings. Larry Smith, CTO of GTECH Corp., a provider of gaming systems to the lottery industry, says the company's technology can be viewed as concentric circles, with strategic development kept in-house, the next layer provided by partners and vendors, and another layer provided by temporary workers and consultants. As IT work gets more commoditized, Smith said, "I will look for the lowest-cost alternative"—which he will probably find offshore.

This article was originally published on 10-01-2003
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