I’ve had many conversations in recent weeks about the commoditization of the data center with many being concerned about the effect of the diminishing need for specialist hardware and greater automation through software. More specifically, how that might affect the job prospects of administrators and other technical roles in the modern IT environment.
We are in an era of rapid evolutionary change and this can be unsettling for many as change often is. There seems to be a wide variety of reactions to these changes. At one end there is the complete denial and a desire to retain the status quo, with an expectation that these industry changes may never occur. In the middle, we have those that tip their hat in recognition of the general direction of the trends, but expect things to happen more gradually and then there are those that embrace it with an expectation of gaining some level of competitive advantage by being a first mover. If there is one thing that is certain, if you find yourself at the wrong end of that spectrum, you will most definitely find yourself in difficulty.
The change is happening and happening more quickly than most expect. The automation of data center operations and a focus on innovation is a key objective for most organisations at the moment. “Keeping the lights on” tasks are becoming less relevant in this world.
Casting Off the Shackles of Hardware
Development of custom hardware based intelligence is complex. This often involves the research and production of custom chipsets for these devices. Due to the research, prototyping and production requirements of this type of operation. We are usually working to a 2-3 year development and release cycle. In fact, most organisations have been used to using this kind of procurement cycle, executing a hardware refresh every 3-5 years.
This has worked historically, but today there are new kids on the block and they are eating the market with a new approach to developing and delivering services. Pioneers like Facebook, Google and Netflix have fundamentally changed how service delivery works. These operations have decoupled their software intelligence from hardware and deliver their services based on commodity inexpensive hardware. This not only reduces their capital outlay, it also provides them with a platform to rapidly deliver agile software services. In these types of environments, it is not uncommon to see software releases move from a 18-24 month cycle to a daily or weekly cycle. Strategically they can pivot at a moments notice and they can easily scale or contract operations at a very low-cost. As you might imagine, this kind of agility has become very challenging from a competitive stand point for companies like Microsoft who have had 3-4 year major release cycles baked into the fibre of their operational approach (e.g. Exchange, Windows Server, etc).
What About Automation?
The more we move towards software controlled infrastructures, the more easily they can be automated. Most solutions today are built with some kind of API (application programming interface) to enable other applications to programmatically control or manage them in someway. In this decade, the industry has moved firmly away from proprietary API technologies, towards standardised ones. More often not based on the RESTful API architecture. Alongside this we are starting to see the rise of DevOps tools such as Puppet and Chef, which help bridge the gap between IT operations and the developers actually creating the applications that organisations rely on.
So What Does This Mean For the Modern IT Professional?
As the development of these tools and API interoperability progresses, undoubtedly, IT operations roles will also have to evolve. This does not mean that there will be fewer jobs in IT. In fact, IT skills have become more relevant than ever, but those skills have to change a little. It is time to start moving up the stack by putting more focus on innovation in the area of application and service, rather than keeping the lights on down in the bits and bytes of the infrastructure. By doing this, these industry changes should become a massive job and career enabler, not a cause of suspicion and concern for job security.
I had a chat with a family member this week which summed this up really well for me. We were discussing the Luddites, a 19th century movement in my home region of the North of England. The Luddites, were a group of textile workers who protested against the mechanisation of the production of garments. They did this violently under the auspices of “those machines are taking our jobs, we’ll have nothing to do and we’ll all starve”. A couple of hundred years on, we can see that starvation didn’t happen and those same people survived by finding new ways to innovate. On a sidenote, I once received a letter from a CBE calling me a Luddite who had seen me on TV discussing an environmental issue. I found this most amusing given the industry I work in and my lust of technological progress. In the same conversation with the family member, I mentioned that I was looking forward to the introduction of robot-taxis (e.g. Self-driving Google Cars) due to the efficiencies and cost of car sharing. They replied “but that could be 20,000 taxi drivers losing their jobs in Manchester alone”. I replied “Yes, but that’s also 20,000 people who could alternatively be working on curing cancer, pioneering space travel or solving the world’s energy problems”.
Conclusion – Software Defined X – Automation: Job Stealer or Job Enabler?
For me I see it as a Job Enabler. My advice… embrace the change, relish the opportunity to innovate and change the world for the better.. one step at a time.