The autonomic and the unemployed

A recent Software Human Resource Council report points to a continuing downward spiral for the job security of operations-level IT workers. The rise of autonomic or self-healing systems may deepen that trend.

The SHRC report, called

“”IT/Software Salaries: False Sense of Complacency?”” indicates that a premium is still placed on highly-skilled IT positions in embedded software, application development, e-commerce and security. Operations, however, “”is by far the weakest performing functional area. It appears that jobs in this area are considered to be easily replacable with cheaper resources due to higher levels of general unemployment in these jobs.””

It’s an inevitable course of events, said Faye West, IT director for the Alberta Research Council. “”The network, and technology as a whole, has started to become more stable and more self-healing and doesn’t require as much hands-on as it used to. The demand for those positions I can see going down.”” West also serves on the board of SHRC.

The skills that were in high demand only a few years ago are commonplace now. Much of the day-to-day management of servers and networks that previously required human intervention is being managed by the machines themselves. Major IT vendors like IBM, Microsoft and Computer Associates are pushing research and development dollars into autonomic computing.

Robert LeBlanc, general manager of Tivoli, IBM’s software division, told last year that hands-on maintenance would still be possible in the age of autonomic computing. “” If you want to manage it all yourself, you can,”” he said. “”But who wants to do that anymore? It’s a lot cheaper for the machine to do it.””

CATAAlliance‘s executive director David Patterson said that autonomic computing has been an end-goal for the industry “”as long as I’ve been involved with it.”” He adds that there’s “”no question”” that it threatens the livelihood of IT managers “”but that’s not a new situation. This is an industry that thrives on rapid technological change and always has. It’s always been critically important for people in the industry to keep their skills up. There aren’t people writing programs in FORTRAN any more.””

Darrell Folk, owner of A.D.L. Accounting and Business Systems in Kamloops, B.C., has worked in the past as a database administrator and holds several IT systems cerfitications. He says that he would like to work in IT project management but “”I know right now I’m not in the role I want to be in, and that’s because of demand.””

Folk says he would work as a DBA again, but that work may not be available because databases don’t need the human touch as much as they used to. “”Once you’ve developed the database, the ongoing care and maintenance of that database now is going to be a shorter period of time. (It will) require less maintenance than database models from 1998.””

But Folk says he’s willing to learn what it takes to get up to speed. “”It’s always, as an IT professional, an ongoing process. You need to keep up with technology and sometimes it can overtake you.””

Skills may become outmoded, but their value doesn’t completely evaporate over time, offers West. “”I may not code in COBOL anymore, but the concepts that I have, the overall understanding of systems and systems architectures doesn’t really change. The tools change.””

As baby boomers begin to retire, the next generation of IT workers will begin to move into senior positions. Experience only adds up to so much because technology develops so quickly, says West. “”I think it’s unrealistic for us as employers trying to hire people who are only experienced. The kids who are coming out of school . . . are the people that we are going to be able to build our businesses on in the future.””

New skills will be needed to fill technology jobs, and training institutions will have to provide them. “”Exactly what skills those are is difficult to judge,”” says West, “”but the people are going to be needed.””

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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