eWEEK Labs recently sat down with members of the eWEEK Corporate Partner Advisory Board to get their take on what the job of an IT professional will be like five years from now.
Despite their roles as early adopters of IT innovations, the Corporate Partners are guarded in their attempts to foresee the world of 2010. Developments such as utility computing, broader access and higher throughput in mobile network connections, as well as continuing expansion of corporate governance mandates are high on their lists of whats most likely to come. At the same time, though, their roundtable session last month, moderated by Technology Editor Peter Coffee, revealed a healthy regard for the worlds proven ability to throw them unexpected demands—and divert resources that will continue to be scarce.
Participating in the roundtable were Kevin Baradet, chief technology officer at the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.; Tom Miller, director of IT at FoxHollow Technologies Inc., in Redwood City, Calif.; Fran Rabuck, president of Rabuck Associates, in Philadelphia; Nelson Ramos, CIO/enterprise IT strategist at Sutter Health, in Mather, Calif.; Robert Rosen, CIO at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, in Bethesda, Md.; and Kevin Wilson, product line manager of desktop hardware at Duke Energy Corp., in Charlotte, N.C.
Tom, I know that youve tended to be involved in areas that are really computationally intensive and that youre probably pretty aggressive as a researcher and buyer of data analysis tools and also, for that matter, computing cycles. Whats changed in the pretty dynamic area that youve been in—bioinformatics—during the last few years, and do you have a vision of what you or your organization will be doing in 2010?
Miller: Looking out five years in the future—which is always difficult from an IT perspective because youre really looking at the present and just beyond the horizon—its really in the areas of computing as a service. So I can adjust with the business as the business adjusts. If were in hypergrowth mode, I can adjust the computing infrastructure to adhere to that growth. Then, as we scale back, Im not left with a computing infrastructure thats just depreciating over time.
Are any of the stabs that are being taken at that model, by IBM or Sun Microsystems Inc. or others, laying down a path that you can imagine traveling in the next five years? Or are they all still way off from what you need?
Miller: I think were still early in the development, and its really hard to determine at this point whether its going to be a model that were going to look at. Then there are still questions about the management of that environment. And, from a financial standpoint, I still need to see the bottom line and work with our finance organization to determine whether that model will meet the needs of a midsize business.
Some of the other areas that were looking at, and that Ive had conversations with our management team about, are eliminating some of the limitations around mobile computing. We all look at use of things like [PalmOne Inc.s] Treos or [Microsoft Corp.s] Pocket PCs or notebook computers, but I think weve barely touched where mobile computing can go. I expect by 2010 that Ill have a framework where mobile will start becoming more of a commodity item, and its going to be easier to manage. It will reduce some of the limitations that people have being away from the corporate office.
What is it about mobile now thats making it not as good a model as it ought to be?
Miller: Some of the limitations around bandwidth, limitations around availability, limitations of the devices—we all want to go toward convergence with these devices, but there are limitations with screen real estate and presentation of information.
That last item really goes into another area that were looking out a couple of years at: How do we handle personalized information management? Really aligning with the information life cycle and delivering both qualitative and relevant information.
Kevin Wilson, what does 2010 look like from your perspective?
Wilson: I did two things when thinking about 2010. The first thing I did was look back five years, just to see how far we had come. That puts you back into Y2K, and the world is still spinning around.
Since then, spam has cropped up and created work for us, viruses have propagated and deepened through different avenues that we didnt anticipate.
In looking back, I saw a lot of external forces that influenced what we were doing, as opposed to going into directions of our own choosing. So, I have to think that, by 2010, well probably be pushed into places that were not even aware of.
Do you think its almost unforgivable hubris to think we can plan for another five years, because look at all the things that happened in the last five years that we could not have anticipated?
Wilson: Its that the world computing infrastructure changed as a whole, not just our internal corporate structure.
When you think about world infrastructure, do you find yourself thinking about any possibilities, if not probabilities, over the next five years as things that might affect you?
Wilson: I see that there may be more isolation. Were open now, but I see a lot of companies really controlling how information comes in and goes out. If it gets too chaotic out there, we may lock ourselves back more.
You think there might be more interest in ways of not being on the public Internet after weve spent the last five years aggressively getting onto it?
Wilson: Thats possible. Instead of opening up for everybody, you open it up for the authorized people, your established partners. Maybe the world is a big spider web of virtual networks instead of a big, open highway.
How are you preparing for that now? For example, are you increasing your use of VPN technologies so that you can have more control over who can connect to what?
Wilson: Were starting to look at network access controls that now just control what devices get on our network. … It could be that you have to have access to get outside the company.
Kevin Baradet, does the academic environment recycle every four years, or does it evolve in a more continuous way than that?
Baradet: Were operating here more like the e-business world. The university has decided to abide by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, even though as a private entity it doesnt have to, and thats starting to drive the way we look at things. Were also starting to pull systems off the “big I” Internet wherever possible … especially if systems have student or employee information on them that really has no need to be exposed to the outside world.
Taking advantage of Kevin Wilsons idea of looking back five years to see how much hes been surprised, do any things come to mind in terms of thinking out of the box when you look ahead at the next five years?
Baradet: Not too much at the moment. I see a lot of whats old becoming new again—the rise of the virtual machine and the fact that were looking at paring down the number of physical boxes by buying somewhat more powerful ones and then combining functions through [virtual server technology].
So the new mainframe is a big box pretending to be a lot of PCs?
Baradet: More large servers. Were also looking at virtualizing some of the PCs for some of our teaching laboratories, which are physically constrained by the number of seats in them, and especially as we expand programs to students who are not physically on campus for probably 90 percent of their teaching time.
Bob Rosen, how are things looking from the government standpoint?
Rosen: When I got the note about what we were going to be discussing today, I came up with several things that I think are going to be significant, in no particular order:
I think mobile is going to become more important—and maybe for reasons that people havent given a lot of thought to: Basically, commuting is getting so bad and is such a waste of resources—time, gasoline and everything else—that theres going to be more and more of a push to telecommuting. And so mobile is going to become more and more important to make that an extension of your office.
Also, I see that IT will become an enhancer and not something where youre looking for cost reductions. Were going to be working more and more with the business side of the house, in a partnership with them as opposed to just keeping our heads buried in the technology.
Do you think weve begun our climb out of the valley of downsizing and cost reduction already?
Rosen: No, thats never going to go away, but if we dont climb up that other side, were going to be driven out of business completely.
And that leads to my next point—whats going to happen with grid and utility computing. I think theyre going to be coming more and more on the horizon and will be much more mainstream as security issues are addressed.
Do you think at the moment that technology and security-side issues are the bigger barrier to the mainstream adoption of grid computing, or do you think its still the business and pricing and costing models being so much in flux thats keeping it on the edge of peoples attention?
Rosen: I think people are concerned about the security and the technology and not so much the pricing.
What were seeing in some places around here is that people are building grids internally. And so thats how theyre controlling their security and technology issues—using the grid so its internal utility computing.
Are they doing that as a technology-evaluation exercise or because its actually giving them some capacity management benefits?
Rosen: A little of both, probably. Its still not mainstream, but were seeing some of the advanced people starting to do that kind of stuff.
One thing I havent heard anybody mention is were going to have to spend more time managing and dealing with our human capital. You cant outsource forever, and you really need to maintain the innovative capabilities—youve got to keep your workers happy and so on. You cant keep treating people like replaceable pawns.
Finally, and this is probably more than five years out, if we ever get to really true plug and play—not just with hardware but with software—it will eliminate a lot of the necessity we have for a lot of the technical stuff we do. Just put the things in that we need, and they work. That will help us get out of the technology pit we constantly dig ourselves into.
Youre talking about application integration reaching the level of transparency and automatic discovery that we have to a large extent now with hardware?
Is Web services a step in that direction?
Rosen: It is a step in that direction, but its a baby step.
What are the major unanswered questions or unmet challenges with Web services that you see now?
Rosen: You have problems with data formats. The biggest problem, of course, is that everyone wants everything customized their own way. A good analogy is to look back at the auto industry. The option list on cars used to be a mile long, and it ended up being reflected in the price. Now, you get this package and this package, and each package includes certain options. This model is cheaper because it improves the manufacturing efficiencies and so on. Youre going to see, I think, a similar kind of thing happening in our industry.
How are things looking on the health care front, Nelson?
Ramos: I think were going to see IT become almost more centralized, in terms of infrastructure and standardization. I think IT is now woven into all of a corporations major initiatives, and thats going to continue. In these transition years, its going to place more of a demand on IT to work on its internal processes, leading to a more transparent use of IT.
Do you think theres a charter emerging to undo the uncontrolled dispersion of IT responsibility that took place from, say, 1980 to 2000?
Ramos: I think so because, again, for IT to be transparent to an enterprise, its going to require more standardization and more formalization.
Is that transparency requirement being driven by governance mandates or just cost-effectiveness?
Ramos: I think both cost-effectiveness plus the interweaving of IT within an organization. Especially in health care—right now, the major initiatives are going to be in sharing of information.
It seems as if theres an awfully powerful collision thats going to be taking place between a) the demand for interoperability and exchangeability, and b) the demand for privacy and confidentiality and access control.
Ramos: Right, and its tremendous. Today, its largely driven by regulation, HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act]. Going by the letter of that law, the consumer is a vital link in that because, in essence, they have to give permission as information is disclosed. There are certain exceptions to that rule related to patient care. I think that will be an area in which, as we get more automated, well be challenged more in the future.
As far as the actual adoption of HIPAA is concerned, would you say were at the end of the beginning or in the middle stage of actually making that work?
Ramos: Were in the middle.
Do you think youll feel like youre done by 2010, or will you still be working on it?
Ramos: Well be in the middle stages of interoperability. If I drew a parallel, it would be with the banking industry, where now you can use an ATM card anywhere in the country. I think well get to the point where there will be a means to share information, but I still think the social elements to that still need to be put into effect in terms of disclosure and accountability. Tied to that are all the issues of security.
Fran Rabuck, what do you see as a major driver as we head toward 2010?
Rabuck: Innovation. Innovation was kind of bordering on lunacy in the late 90s. This time around, its going to be much more methodical. Before, you said, “Weve got to be on the Internet, and heres our initial ante.” I dont think thats going to happen this time. People will take more of an incremental approach.
Heres a question for the whole group. What kinds of people will you need to be hiring five years from now? How will the skills mix change?
Ramos: I think well need people who are more familiar with business processes.
Are these people a reinvention of the systems analysts of the 60s and 70s? Or is there something more sophisticated there?
Ramos: I think now were looking for people with a broader organizational perspective.
Miller: Over time, I try to see more people with skills in analytics that they can apply to all parts of the business. I really see IT staff as becoming more business analysts who are liaisons for different parts of the business and learn the different parts of the business, not just IT.
Rosen: I think one of the key things youll need is people who know how to learn—not so much people who know language X, Y and Z, but people capable of learning a lot of different kinds of things.
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