Numbers Game

Department of Corrections: Last month in this space, I reported on The Standish Group's most recent Chaos survey. I said that only 28% of IT projects succeed, 18% are canceled, and 51% are "challenged" -- seriously late, over budget and lacking expected features. Some readers wrote in to point out that the numbers don't add up: 28% plus 18% plus 51% makes only 97%.

They're right. I botched the numbers. That 51% comes from 2003. This year, 54% of U.S. IT projects fell into the challenged category.

Yeah, the numbers were wrong. But at least they weren't ridiculous -- or worse. And that brings us around to a new Gartner forecast (see story).

According to analyst Donna Scott, speaking at Gartner's annual data center conference in Las Vegas, up to half of all IT operational jobs could disappear over the next 20 years because of improved data center automation.

Got that? Gartner's telling us what we can expect for data center staffing circa 2024. That'll come in very handy for the next quarterly IT budget adjustment, won't it?

It's easy to make fun of a prediction like this. We know the numbers aren't meaningful, because no one can gin up useful numbers two decades in advance. Just looking a few years out, predictions get shaky.

For example, only three years ago, Gartner Chairman Michael Fleisher predicted that half of the household-name IT vendors wouldn't exist in three years. That pronouncement made for some big headlines in 2001, just as Hewlett-Packard was swallowing Compaq. But it's not a prediction you'll see Gartner bragging about these days.

(Gartner still stands by Fleisher's statement -- sort of. Vendor consolidation will just take longer and may not be as extreme as predicted, the company now says. Translation: "We botched the numbers, but we still think some consolidation will happen eventually.")

But a 20-years-out prediction is also troubling. It could be right -- but only if nothing in IT really changes. That's not likely. Major disruptions and surprising shifts could hit us in both the technology and business worlds.

In 20 years, IT operations could conceivably be running on a lights-out basis, almost completely automated. Operations staff cut by 50%? It might be 80% or 95%.

Or automation might wipe out systems administrators and operators, but operations staff head count might stay level, thanks to a vastly expanded training and support function.

Or the IT operations staff might have to increase because IT has taken on functions we'd never imagine as IT work today. (Who thought in 1984 that IT would serve as a retail store, switchboard and mailroom?)

Or in 20 years, IT operations might be completely outsourced, making head count estimates meaningless. Or it might be invisible in the budget because departments will have taken over their own IT operations to run them more effectively than centralized IT -- not necessarily more efficiently, but more effectively.

We simply don't know what IT operations will look like in 20 years. And the only way Gartner can forecast IT operations staffing 20 years out is by encouraging a simple-minded "the future will look just like the past" world view.

That's a dangerous way of thinking. We're always at risk when we slip into it -- even without the help of analysts who should know better.

Gartner folks, we understand what you're trying to tell us: Improved data center automation will reduce IT operations staffing needs eventually.

But please, don't dress that up as a 20-year prediction, or botching the numbers will be the least of your mistakes.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years.

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