Kids grow up, if you're lucky they eventually get a job and settle down, looking very much like their parents did at a similar age. By the way, they dislike it when you point this out.
Industries grow up too: they go through exciting periods of rapid growth and innovation, but eventually settle down and start looking like other industries in many regards.
IT is certainly an industry that has gone through exciting growth and transformation over the last few decades. But is IT growing up and settling down?
And -- if so -- is this just a temporary plateau before the next exciting period?
Given that most of my readers have invested their entire careers in IT, it's a relevant topic.
What Brought This On
My first paying IT job was 40 years ago when I was a mere 13 years old -- during the summer, I got paid to write simple BASIC routines on a teletype punch using a 300 baud modem. It was better than a paper route or mowing lawns.
As such, I've had a ringside seat on how many aspects of IT have evolved over four decades. I'm also an armchair student of economics, and thus very interested in how other industries have evolved by way of comparison.
I look around at the supply-side our familiar IT industry, and I observe the following:
- IT spend is flattening.
- The accepted flavors of technology in play are sort of a given, depending on your perspective.
- For a supplier, achieving a unique technology value proposition is getting harder and harder: the tech is pretty darn good these days.
- By the way, not a lot of new tech IPOs these days, are there?
- There are now a variety of mature consumption models for IT: cloud, SaaS, managed service, etc.
- Big M&A in IT has settled down -- a sign of a post-consolidation world.
- And big IT vendors have started to pay dividends -- even EMC!
I look at the demand-side, and there's a consistent picture as well:
- IT groups are becoming IS groups -- focusing on service delivery and attractive consumption.
- All the focus is moving to operational models and figuring out how to be the "IT service provider of choice".
- The debate over building or brokering services has ended in a tie: it's both. IT owns the relationship.
- IT leaders are seeing themselves as business people with an IT background.
In-between, there's a supply chain that shows all signs of stabilizing:
- The old labels of VAR, service provider, outsourcer, system integrator are blurring -- customers want a mix of consumption tailored to their needs.
- The value proposition has shifted from "we know the tech" to "we know the solution" or "we know your business".
- IT vendors (such as EMC) now see this group as adding unique value vs. simply being another route to market.
Are we in IT all that special, or are we starting to look like other industries?
Can We Learn From Other Industries?
Retail has gone through a massive upheaval over the last few decades. The first wave was the "big box" store (e.g. Walmart) where you could find everything under one roof, and at an attractive price. Amazon came along and did much of the same thing online.
Other retailers were forced to specialize: unique offerings, unique customer experiences, unique expertise, etc. Adapt or suffer the consequences.
But now that the new shape of the retail industry is established, you have to look very closely to discern any interesting trends.
Air travel was an exciting industry -- when it was new: glamorous, exotic, etc. My, how things have changed.
The industry now has two models: full-service and low-cost. And the lines continue to blur between the two. All of the focus now appears to be on customer engagement, clever pricing, operational efficiency, etc. Sort of like retail.
Energy production was exciting (briefly) when an important new technology came along (fracking), but that was a while back, and then it started to look familiar again.
Manufacturing gets interesting from time to time when a new tech or process shows up (e.g. 3D printing), but then it seems to settle back down to look pretty much like it did before.
Healthcare -- particularly in the US -- is currently dynamic, mostly due to the arrival of new government-sponsored programs and shift from pay-for-service to pay-for-outcome. But in the big scheme of things, that likely will be short-lived as well. People get sick, and need healthcare.
I'm sure there are other examples, but there appears to be no shortage of stable, well-understood industries (and associated business models) that haven't been subject to the same rapid pace of evolution and restructuring as the IT industry.
Are we in IT now approaching the norm?
The Case For IT Optimism
I would make my case that -- yes -- there's plenty of dynamicism and innovation ahead of us in the IT world -- but it won't be in the same areas we've focused on the past. While still interesting on some levels, it's easy to come to the perspective that servers are servers, storage is storage, networks are networks, databases are databases, development environments are development environments and so on.
The tech is good enough for the purpose at hand -- what next?
Spend any time getting close to "internet of things", autonomous sensor networks, big data and analytical applications, and you'll inevitably come away completely dazzled by the potential.
In some regards, we're witnessing the beginnings of a societal shift. There are entirely new use cases at hand, and they impact virtually every human concern and edeavor. New technology will be required, as well new skills and new consumption models. We're not simply automating familiar things; we're discovering entirely new ways to exploit the data that's now surrounding us. A prolonged period of innovation awaits us -- and it is very early days indeed.
No wonder so many of us are enthralled by what Pivotal is doing.
I believe we are in the very early days of exploiting mobile technology in all of its forms -- including wearable tech.
Ten years from now, that sleek iPhone 5 and iPad are going to look awfully clunky and primitive. As we integrate more mobile tech into our lives (vs. simply carrying it around with us), we will need new tools.
And, as before, the tools will inevitably change us.
There are also new business models that have yet to come into vogue. If information is becoming a valuable commodity, where are the information brokers who act as middlemen, assume risk, and make a market by balancing supply and demand? You can find a few limited examples out there today, but the opportunity has yet to be fully exploited.
There are also consequential disruptions: innovations in IT can often change the shape and structure of a familiar segment. What will education look like in ten years? Municipal government? Entertainment and media? National defense? Will we think of self-driving automobiles as just another place to have a digital experience?
For those of you who have invested your careers in IT, the future may be very rich and rewarding indeed.
If we learn to adapt.