Why SaaS Could Make Your IT Skills Irrelevant

The rapid adoption of software as a service is fundamentally changing the makeup of today's IT departments. The infantry of software developers, maintenance and support pros now taking care of on-premise software must garner new skills to stay viable, industry experts warn.

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Tom Clement has reinvented his career before. In 1984, he realized working in technology would suit him better than his job as a litigator in Texas. "I came home one day from work, and I was used to being really tense," he says. "But that day, my secretary's recorder had broke. I'd taken it apart, put it back together, and somehow, it worked. I was whistling and in a good mood because of it, and my girlfriend heard me and said, 'Tom, maybe you were made for a different line of work.'"

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After moving to California and taking a night class at UC Berkeley in C-Programming, he put his law ambitions aside and took a job at a C-compiler company, taking pieces of code and translating it into a language that could work on Motorola hardware.

Today, Clement, a journeyman in software development, might be facing a bigger career test: the movement of software to the Web and the effect it will have on developers like himself and the thousands of IT support and maintenance pros taking care of traditional software at small and large enterprises across all industries.

Software as a service (SaaS), one flavor of today's hot buzzword, cloud computing, refers to applications that users access over the Web and which live on physical servers hosted by the software vendors or a third-party, not servers owned and cared for by an in-house IT department.

"I've got some learning to do in my 50s," Clement says. "Now, I need to know more about Web 2.0 and java programming. While I know I can, I still have that fear of, 'will I be able to do it?'"

Clement, now senior developer at Serena Software, in some ways is already adapting, as his company has begun building SaaS applications along side its traditional software. And sure, developers have been through big transitions in computing before, most notably the move from mainframe computers to the PC era.

The IT industry is now preparing for a new round of upheaval as a result of SaaS adoption of offerings from the likes of Google (with its Google Apps) and Salesforce.com that let users run applications via the Internet. Zoho, a SaaS vendor that does most of its development work in India, has also sold a plethora of applications, including in staple, Microsoft-dominated areas like word processing, spreadsheets and presentations.

SaaS adoption by enterprises has been aggressive. A report in May conducted by Kelton research found that 73 percent of large companies saying they would adopt SaaS or plan to adopt it in the next 18 months.

Coupled with the consumerization of IT — the idea that people at their jobs expect applications at work to look like the Web technologies they use at home such as Facebook and Google — many IT professionals will be forced to rethink their skill sets and what value they bring to their companies, says Jeffrey Kaplan, president of THINKstrategies, a consultancy that helps companies adopt SaaS applications.

"Unfortunately, most developers have built enterprise applications to meet their current systems environment and the end-user was very secondary," Kaplan says. "Now, the end-user experience is the driving factor, because end-users determine whether or not the application is considered successful."

In addition, maintenance veterans — the guys who handle the plumbing of IT — will see their job options start to recede. That reality can be both a challenge and an opportunity for the IT industry, says Peter Coffee, Director of Force.com, the platform provided by Salesforce.com for developers building SaaS-based apps.

"If you're in the ecosystem of working on staple, on-premise software, you can take care of feeding and watering those systems," Coffee says. "But those low value tasks no longer need to be done and you won't cover the IT equivalent of infantry. You want to be the IT equivalent of special forces."

Those special forces might include building new features on top of SaaS apps that fit a company's specific needs, or managing the relationships a company has between two or more SaaS vendors who both provide technology to the same company, making sure the systems talk well with one another, says Ken Venner, senior VP and CIO of corporate services at Broadcom.

"Working with vendors will really become ever more critical," Venner says. "One of the skills that will start to reduce is core infrastructure skills."

The Post-Modern IT Department

Today, most large companies use a mix of both traditional apps that they host with servers on premise and some that they let the Salesforce.coms of the world host offsite. But the idea of a plug and play IT department isn't a dream. Tim Davis, CIO of Popeyes Chicken, a national fast food chain based in Atlanta, Georgia, only has six IT people and not one server on premise.

Not all of his apps are SaaS-based. A SaaS vendor, by his definition, is a company that provides the software over the Web, hosts it, and charges a subscription fee (generally per user per month). Popeyes owns the licenses for some of its software, and worked out a contract with IBM to host and support the servers for those apps.

But that contract, which includes IBM's hosting of Popeyes' e-mail system (Microsoft Exchange), will expire in 2009. Microsoft recently released a SaaS version of Exchange for a mere $10 per user per year. When Popeyes' contract with IBM expires, Davis admits he could pursue more SaaS options as it would likely cost him less money that outsourcing to Big Blue.

So if there are no servers and the like, what does his IT department do?

"Three [people] are dedicated towards making sure the restaurants have whatever technology they need," he says. "The rest are project managers and manage our relationships with vendors."

Developers Adapt

Most people who spend their lives in technology know that adaptation is necessary to job survival. Nobody can keep up with the pace of technology innovation entirely; the best you can do is stay ahead of the curve enough to remain viable.

For developers, that'll mean embracing new programming languages and open Web standards when creating their enterprise software. But making the transition doesn't have to be terribly difficult, says Force.com's Coffee. "If you currently develop in Java or .Net, and you understand enough about databases, the language of ours is very readable," he says.

For IT support people who handle enterprise infrastructure and back-end support, future roles might include working in the data center of a SaaS vendor, or helping ensure that a company can integrate various SaaS apps, says Fred Luddy, president and CEO of Service-Now, an IT service management company that runs on a SaaS model.

"Integration will be the main challenge," he says. "IT will be at a higher level."

While Serena Software's Clement knows he has some learning to do, he knows enough to be prepared for changes in software development. "My experience has always been that programming is programming," he says. "The language is sort of a detail. There's this sea change in the computing world right now. The environment is changing, and while I have fears, there's nothing more thrilling than working on something that will be relevant for the future."

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