As computing eras change, so do skills

In 1964, IBM Corp. announced the IBM 360 family of computers, made possible by the invention of the transistor about eight years earlier. This was the first time computers of different sizes could use the same operating system.

Other companies followed suit. Venture investments in business computing boomed. IPOs peaked in 1969, followed by two years of a computer stock crash and shakeout. After the shakeout, there was more than a decade of sustained growth in business computer shipments. The number of computer users swelled to 100,000.

In 1977, Apple Computer Inc. and Radio Shack introduced PCs, made possible by the microprocessor, which was invented six years earlier. Other companies soon followed. Venture investments and IPOs picked up until they peaked in 1982. Overheated, PC stocks crashed in 1983, followed by a year and a half of shakeout. After that: more than a decade of sustained growth in PC shipments. The number of computer users swelled to more than 100 million.

In 1994, the creation of the browser let anyone with a connection to the Internet communicate over the World Wide Web, which had been unleashed three years earlier. Companies formed to take advantage of it. Venture investments and IPOs picked up until they peaked in 1999, followed by a crash and shakeout in 2000 and - so far - 2001. The number of Web users will hit 1 billion this decade.

Get the picture? In every major computing era - first the mainframe, then the PC, now the Web - there's a significant technology invention, a burst of investment followed by a shakeout, then a period of sustained growth.

This, at least, is my theory of computing eras. One corollary to this theory is that the roles and career success factors of IT professionals change radically with each era, which is why I'm subjecting you to this history lesson.

The two key characteristics of this upcoming era of computing will be ubiquity and mobility. Within four years, there will be twice as many mobile phones and Internet appliances accessing the Web as PCs, according to IDC's model of Internet usage. Within 10 years, billions of additional devices - from toys to wearable computers, automobiles and household appliances - will probably also tie into the Web.

So the IT professional's job will morph once again, from the care and feeding of computers in the mainframe era and the delivery of applications and services to end users in the PC era to traffic management, network administration, security and service brokering in the Internet era.

Service brokering will force the biggest change among IT professionals. While some will work in the for-profit firms that do what many IT professionals in corporations do today - fix computers and install and maintain enterprise applications - most will work in their organizations' business units. They will become akin to product managers, anticipating the information services that internal and external customers will want and negotiating with internal and external resources to deliver them. To perform these functions, IT professionals will require new skills in market research, negotiation and quality assurance, budgeting, project and service management and even sales and marketing.

Today's skills won't be outmoded overnight. But they will become outmoded. If you're over 50, you may be able to escape into retirement before the new rules take effect. If you're under 40, you'd better have a personal strategy for ongoing career development.

John Gantz is a senior vice president at IDC in Framingham, Mass. Contact him at jgantz@idc.com.

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