Ten years ago this month I wrote a magazine article in which I attempted to describe the perfect hand-held gadget, a device I was instructed by my editor to call “the holy grail” of PDAs. Today we’d call it the iPhone 4, but back then my imagination wasn’t expansive enough for built-in cameras, touch screens, or broadband speeds. The dream gadget I ended up describing may have been cool at that moment, but today you’d just laugh at it.
In an industry where product cycles churn every 18 months (or faster) and where Moore’s Law is still pretty much holding steady, it may seem pointless to try to predict the lay of the land ten years out, and yet we keep trying, the way this recent Computerworld special report on 2020 does.
Why bother? Because even if we can’t pinpoint the weather forecast for 2020 we can probably get a sense of which way the wind will be blowing. Careers last a long time, so it’s a useful exercise to try to catch at least a little bit of the breeze.
The Computerworld writers make the case that if you’re young the future doesn’t really matter because you’ll still be learning anyway. And if you’re old, you’ll be out the door soon enough, so don’t sweat it. It’s the big crowd in the middle who face the toughest challenges. They have experience and are somewhat set in their ways, yet the world is changing all around them and they have to keep up with it for another 20 years.
I agree with that premise in a sort of sweeping macroscopic way, and I also agree that the kinds of nuts-and-bolts IT work that keeps hundreds of thousands of people employed today – help desk, network and desktop support, LAN maintenance, telecom functions – will be increasingly commoditized, with salaries adjusting downward. If you’re at the lower end of the totem pole in any of these fields, you’d better start climbing toward management as fast as you can. You don’t want to be left behind among the teeming masses.
Data, Data Everywhere
Computerworld also drops the statistical bomb that by 2020, the amount of data generated each year will reach 35 zettabytes, or about 35 million petabytes. I admit it, this is the first time I’ve heard of a zettabyte, and I’m amazed and a little scared. What this says to me is that any career path associated with the handling, moving, archiving and maintenance of data – and that can mean hundreds of things – will be a good place to be in 2020. While “data” tends to sound a little boring, managing it effectively may soon be on the cutting edge of computer science. In the meantime, start developing a sun-setting plan for all those old tape drives down in the data center.
Another Computerworld prediction: Risk management will make its way into IT. This dismal science originated in the insurance industry, of course, and made its way into the financial sector, where highly paid spreadsheet gurus try to figure out which big money bets are worth taking. As IT evolves with incredible speed, the theory goes, unintended consequences of innovative experiments will abound, and risk managers will try to predict which innovations are most likely to lead to potential technology meltdowns. This sounds fascinating to me, and it speaks to the same advice that the most successful CIOs and CTOs give when asked about IT career paths: Look up from your coding and your cables and learn about how the business works. Time and again these C-level execs have said to me, “I wish I had a better understanding of business before I found myself in this position.” Now that technology is the heartbeat of every organization, the tech gurus are sitting at the same conference room table as the money gurus, and they’re working together. That’s already true today, and it will be truer in 2020, when we’re all busily pushing those zettabytes around.
— Don Willmott