How the cloud can make IT shops more innovative

As more maintenance moves to the cloud, IT workers change skills and focus

Jobs at many IT departments have been primarily about maintenance -- fixing crashed email systems, dealing with ever-expanding security parameters and helping users who bring their own devices to the office.

Keep the servers running. Keep email working. Keep the bosses from yelling because their passwords don't work.

The cloud may be changing all that.

As enterprise IT shops offload some of their heavy lifting to the public cloud, they can let someone else worry about at least part of the regular maintenance routine.

That means IT workers will have more time to be innovative. They'll be able to build a great new app or service that will help their business better take on the competition or connect more closely with customers.

"Probably just a few decades ago, almost every project that came out of IT had a huge ROI to it," said Curtis Peterson, vice president of global operations at RingCentral, a software-as-a-service provider based in San Mateo, Calif. "You could write a few lines of code and save the business a lot of money.... Now they're focused on maintenance over innovation, and now the ROIs are not nearly as compelling as they once were."

According to Peterson, IT departments in large enterprises 20 years ago spent about 80% of their time working on projects that differentiated their companies from competitors. Today, that has flip-flopped, with IT spending only 20% of its time on innovation.

The cloud is changing that dynamic.

Jagdish Rebello, an analyst at IHS, agreed, saying he has seen IT departments move to free their employees to be more innovative.

"IT has started to become a lot more innovative," he told Computerworld. "IT has become a cost center. Servers, the network, infrastructure -- it was all about cost. It was a necessary investment for the company. They didn't think about it as a way they could generate profit. The cloud is allowing IT to become a profit center instead of just a cost center."

With cloud services managing processes like company email and data storage, enterprise IT departments have more time to, for example, help their companies be more interactive with customers and suppliers.

A drugstore chain, for example, created an app that reminds users to take their medications. If a user doesn't respond to the app's prompt and confirm that he took his pills, the app can alert a friend or relative.

"IT can start creating new services and add value," said Rebello. "It's really amazing what the cloud is allowing IT to do as it frees up services."

One issue is whether the IT workers who have been focused on maintaining email, servers and mobile applications have the right skills to write new software, work with the business side and think up new competitive technologies.

"IT can spend less money on operations and put it toward applications," said Lydia Leong, an analyst at research firm Gartner. As a result, IT shops may have to refresh their staffs, she added, because "the people who are great at pushing buttons on a GUI are often not people who become great innovators."

For instance, an IT shop that was able to remove operations people might replace them with applications specialists who can deliver new business value.

As a result, the type of IT worker that enterprises will be looking for is likely to change.

"Essentially, the demand for IT workers will be focused on the top of the ladder," said Leong. "Companies will need people who are architects and who are good at talking to business types. The top people are still necessary. The people who do desktop support are typically still necessary, if they haven't already been outsourced."

However, she added that IT workers who specialize in providing hands-on, maintenance-type services will not generally have many career paths in major organizations going forward. Of course, cloud providers will be hiring some of these IT workers, since they'll be taking the maintenance work off the enterprise's hands.

That scenario means a lot of IT people should update their skill sets.

"The entire culture of IT is shifting away from people who are good with dealing with machines," Leong said. "You need more than those technical skills.... I think the new IT model employee is proactive rather than reactive. He thinks about the business. He knows how the business operates. He's as much a guy who knows about the organization and business as he does about tech."

The first wave of this move already has begun, said Jeff Kagan, an independent analyst.

The analysts noted that companies aren't eager to talk about not having been innovative or about the possibility of letting go of IT workers so they can hire others.

"We started out 20 years ago just computerizing, and now companies basically are where they need to be to take it to the next level," he said. "You either get trained and evolve or you get lopped off."

This article, "With the Cloud, IT Shops Can Become Innovative Again," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter, at @sgaudin, and on Google+, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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