My article, Will the Internet Devour Your Job?, generated quite a response from the Internet Evolution community. As I write this, it has 104 comments.
Reading through them, I was struck by this reply from my friend Sharon Fisher:
I referenced the copying jobs of clerks and the religious that were made obsolete by the printing press. It's not just the printing press, either. In the 1980s the personal computer and word processor essentially eliminated the typing pool, an entire department.
In the late 1990s, Outlook and Lotus Notes hit the ranks of the secretary, or office assistant. Where line managers might have had an assistant to take dictation in the 1990s, today it is more common for three or four executives to share a single scheduler.
All this adds to Sharon's point. Why is this news? How is this different? I suspect the reason is very simple: For the first time, the people hurting from the IT jobs disruption are us, the very people in those IT jobs.
The death of IT jobs
It started in the 1990s, with outsourcing, offshoring, mergers, and acquisitions. When the decade finished, where 10 banks once stood, one might be left, and we all know about the consolidation of IT that created.
But that was nothing compared to what came next.
From a datacenter to a computing grid
All those datacenters still needed someone to operate them: A systems administrator for Microsoft Outlook, a storage area network (SAN) administrator for the network attached storage (NAS). We still required server administrators and programmers. Someone had to push the software onto the desktops.
Then SalesForce.com came along, and software-as-a-service. Suddenly, software came through the web. Client/server sales tools gave way to web applications, and email servers are giving way to Gmail. Unless your company is highly regulated, that SAN may well give way to Dropbox and per-gig-per-month offline storage. (My friend, Andrew Ysasi, works at Kent Record Storage. A decade ago, the company was storing boxes; today, they are more likely to scan and store on a hard drive.)
The difference is that the jobs being eaten up are not secretarial. They are not manufacturing workers being replaced by robots. I am talking about new IT jobs making the old ones obsolete -- or at least less relevant.
Here are some options to keep yourself relevant in a world that is constantly changing:
Help build the infrastructure. There will continue to be plenty of tech jobs at Amazon, Microsoft, DropBox, SalesForce, and every other company renting out IT. They will be interesting, challenging, and keep you on the cutting edge -- but you'll have to be on that edge to get the job.
Become the middle man. Twenty years ago, smart young upstarts were building websites; today they provide the entire IT infrastructure for small businesses, registering the domain, setting up the webservers, and installing Wordpress. That work goes all the way through to integrating email, collaboration tools, storage, and online backup. Once the customer is set up, they charge a monthly support fee and offer support-as-a-service -- and that company could be you.
Work at change-resistant organizations. Companies can be like boats: A lot of inertia will turn them very slowly. Successful businesses with a moat of defenses may make technology choices that keep older skills relevant -- at least for awhile.
This isn't an all or nothing thing. Learning Puppet today won't ensure your career's longevity any more than learning VMware would have five years ago, or learning Windows 95 would have done 15 years ago.
All this reminds me of an old quote from Christopher McDougall:
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're the lion or a gazelle -- when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.
It's kind of like that.
How are you running?
— Matt Heusser is principal consultant of Excelon Development.