What an IT career will look like in 5 years

Emerging technologies and shifting workplace demands are reshaping the IT career horizon. Here are the changes experts see unfolding for IT roles and how IT work gets done.

What an IT career will look like in 5 years
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If you sketched out how IT roles will change in the coming years, you’d likely envision tech roles maturing around emerging and high-value technologies, such as AI, data science, and the cloud, as well as a continuing focus on security across industries and business divisions.

These topics frequently came up in our discussions with tech leaders about the near future of IT roles. But so too did surprising insights — including potential new positions that don’t exist today.

Along with in-demand roles we discussed how work will get done and how a mix of full-time and gig workers will help deliver results. We also considered how these changes might suggest a road map for making career adjustments or corrections that can help you thrive in the years ahead.

New security roles

Evolving security threats will lead to new roles, suggests Joy Beland, senior director of cybersecurity business development at Continuum, with an emphasis on organizational culture rather than technology alone.

“The internal culture of businesses needs to adopt a new perspective around privacy and security,” Beland says. “The adoption of tools and cyber solutions is completely dependent upon this. I think this will lead to a new title: chief cybersecurity culture officer. Those who focus on the human element for cybersecurity implementation are going to become more sought after as the integration between old-school HR policy, corporate culture, and information security merge into one leadership role.”

Beland can also see CIO and CISO roles merging at smaller companies, “as the need for integrating oversight of technology with privacy and security continues to align, and budgets within smaller companies struggle to accommodate both roles.”

Jim O’Gorman, of Offensive Security, also sees a need for new security roles. “It used to be that you could say you were an exploit developer,” O’Gorman says. “Then it changed to ‘I write browser exploits,’ and now it’s ‘I write exploits for this specific browser.’ As the protections have gotten more and more complex, diving deep into specific areas is becoming critical. Even within organizations, splitting penetration testing IT teams and true red-team assessments continues to be more essential.”

Planning for distributed teams

Remote work, like the gig economy, is only expected to increase, driving the need for new tools and approaches to meet deadlines and goals.

“As almost half of U.S. employees already work remotely in some form, technology will enable a greater number to do so over the next five years,” says Chris McGugan, senior vice president of solutions and technology at Avaya. “And for businesses to truly reap the benefits of such a workforce, project managers will be needed to ensure the distribution of work is met.”

McGugan also sees the need for IT specialists who can implement new collaborative solutions to facilitate remote work and ensure remote workers can easily contribute to projects. “These specialists will be needed to choose the right technology vendors, and make sure the systems operate well,” he says.

Michael Cantor, CIO of Park Place Technologies, sees another scenario that will make gig and remote work necessary.

“The upswell in retiring workers will also make talent acquisition harder as the labor pool declines, making alternative arrangements more acceptable,” Cantor says. “These will just be another source on top of FTE, contracting, offshoring, etc.”

But Cantor doesn’t expect a full-fledged shift in how career paths will unfold, just that new work patterns will be available to those who are interested in them. “I don’t foresee the continued hiring of FTEs and contractors as changing, and individuals who prefer those working models should not have trouble finding those jobs,” he says.

Democratization of data and app development

Steven Hall, partner and president at ISG, expects widespread adoption of tools across business divisions that can help employees develop apps and make sense of big data.

“In general, we’re seeing a de-industrialization and de-centralization of IT. Technology is accessible to all with literally thousands of SaaS and micro-services available to the novice,” Hall says, pointing to two emerging trends: the rise of low-code development platforms and tools that make data science and data visualization more accessible to business users.

“IT skills are changing dramatically, but in quite interesting ways. Cloud and SaaS solutions with low-code or no-code capabilities have simplified software development. Organizations are shifting to PaaS solutions, such as ServiceNow and Force.Com to rapidly develop applications with limited IT support,” he says. “Rapid developments in data visualization through tools such as Microsoft BI, Tableau, Domo, etc., have moved traditional business reporting functions from the dark corners of IT to the front of the business where analysts across the organization can now easily analyze data in real time and provide extremely sophisticated visuals to better understand the data.”

Specialized guns for hire

Andres Rodriguez, CTO of Nasuni and former CTO of The New York Times, says there’s a growing need for contracted data scientists with specialized experience that should only increase.

“We see relatively small boutique firms that specialize in specific industries such as pharmaceuticals, transportation, logistics, etc.,” Rodriguez says. “The benefit to their clients is that there’s typically a great deal of overlap when it comes to the useful, achievable goals in any given sector. These firms can help cross-pollinate that utility and reduce the risk of ending up in an analytics dead end.”

Automation’s impact

Automation is already transforming workloads and workflows, and continued reliance on these technologies point to a rise in demand for pros skilled with automation and a shift in roles surrounding the work impacted by them.

Employee onboarding is one process Cathy Southwick, CIO of Pure Storage, sees being increasingly automated in the near future, even at small and midsize businesses.

“They can automate much of what it takes from an IT perspective — from email distribution lists to application permissions and more,” Southwick says. “That might sound trivial, but the volume of such work really adds up when it has to be done manually.”

Lightweight chatbots in the workplace will also help reduce what Southwick calls “minutiae time” that IT workers might otherwise be burdened with. “An employee can engage with a bot to do a password reset or request a software license. That’s a time saver for the employee who is the end user and for the IT employee, who is freed up to handle bigger picture tasks,” she says. “It also creates a better employee experience if they can have their requests handled in a matter of minutes with the use of technology.”

Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO at Nutanix, says her company’s machine learning tools are already resolving nearly a third of their help desk requests.

“In this new IT environment, vast help desk teams will fall to the wayside,” Pfeiffer says. “For instance, we maintain a ratio of about one help desk resource for every 700 employees. What will be in more demand are skills surrounding IoT and edge computing. By 2021, Cisco predicts that IoT devices will produce nearly 850 zettabytes of data annually, or more than 40 times the information generated by the world's data centers. IT teams will need the right people, tools and strategies for capturing and analyzing this data at the edge.”

Many tech pros see automation reducing the amount of menial work people do now, coupled with a need for human-driven, high-level thinking. But there are risks as well.

“AI and machine learning will increasingly be used to support and augment employer capabilities, leading employers to focus more on areas requiring high-level human judgment,” says Chris Murphy, group managing director for North America at ThoughtWorks. “Of course, the downside to this shift is it risks hollowing out the employee base towards the more highly educated, which can ultimately exacerbate employee inequality. Additionally, even traditional physical areas of the business previously untouched by technology will find themselves subject to automation, and software solutions will continue to migrate to data and statistical solutions.”

AI and process automation may also take on tech jobs once thought to be safe bets for long careers in IT.

Domain experts in demand

While most industries are racing to find was to incorporate AI, Ben Lorica, chief data scientist at O’Reilly, says those with industry-specific knowledge will be in demand in the near future.

“Domain experts are still critical,” Lorica says. “AI depends on data and a certain amount of domain knowledge to assemble high-quality data.”

Without domain expertise on board, companies will continue to struggle finding good use cases for some AI technologies, he adds.

“Acquire domain and subject matter expertise, as current generation AI technologies still need to be tuned for specific applications and settings. It’s important to train and align different parts of your organization: ML and AI involve end-to-end pipelines, so development, testing and integration will cut across roles and units,” Lorica says.

Ben Gaines, director of product management for Adobe Analytics, offers a similar take.

“While many IT organizations possess deep technical knowledge, the challenge of bringing together massive and complex data sets from a wide variety of peer teams may require investment in new skill sets,” Gaines says. “But as more data becomes readily available, and brands are able to better understand that full customer journey, the focus will shift from the marketing data scientist who has a piece of the story to the IT data scientist who has all of that plus additional enterprise data to fold into that narrative.”

New ways to work  

Companies who fail to recognize that a new workforce wants new ways to collaborate at work, will lose out to their competition, argues Neerja Sabharwal, head of cloud and big data at Xavient Information Systems.

Already, we’re seeing the effects of this generation emerge,” Sabharwal says, “with younger employees wanting opportunities to share their opinions and influence decision-making, work more collaboratively across the organization, and participate in customized learning and development plans in order to advance their careers.”

And with this younger generation of IT pros shifting closer to their prime in the next half decade, expect companies to alter how IT works gets done.

“If employers can’t meet their needs and provide the best workplace, culture, technology and other incentives, they will very quickly — if they haven’t already — start to experience growing attrition rates, which will be exponentially problematic given the IT skills shortage we are already experiencing in the U.S. labor market,” Sabharwal says. “Millennials and their preferences for the ways they want to work will be one of the biggest factors in determining what workplaces and careers will look like in the next 5 to 10 years.”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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