20:20 Vision

Whether you're an IT newbie or a seasoned professional, take action now to prepare for the year 2020.

Information technology has always been a fast-changing field. But nothing compares to the expected sea changes in the next decade that will impact the career plans of every generation of IT worker.

"The rate of change has accelerated dramatically," says Alain Chesnais, president of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and founder of Visual Transitions, which specializes in computer graphics and social networks. Consider, he says, that graphics chips are doubling in capacity every six months. That translates into a thousandfold increase in capacity over a five-year period -- the average shelf life of most game platforms. "We've never seen anything like it in any industry," he says.

As the effects of these types of advances ripple across the corporate world and combine with the forces of the Web, mobile computing, consumerization and virtualization, "traditional IT organizations won't look [the way] they do now," says Thomas Druby, an IT executive and former CIO at a large insurer.

"Help desks, network and desktop support, LANs, telecom -- all those things are becoming a commodity that organizations will pay someone outside the company to do [so they can] focus their money and talent on niche areas that bring higher business value," Druby says. These niches, he adds, might require the services of business process specialists, people who can analyze and present business data, security experts and vendor relationship managers.

With that in mind, we've gathered some ideas on the actions that IT workers at three distinct stages of their careers need to take to prepare for the year 2020.

The Pipeliners

These are the college students who are getting degrees now and will fill payrolls in 2020.

Today's college students don't know life without a phone in their pocket and constant connectivity with family and friends. For this reason, they will in some ways be better prepared than previous generations for the pervasively mobile and services-oriented technology landscape of 2020.

At the same time, colleges can't adapt their curricula fast enough to prepare students for the complexities of cloud computing and virtualization, not to mention specific technologies such as Microsoft SharePoint, observers say. Recent graduates also seem naive when it comes to business basics and how computing foundations apply to the real world, says David Buzzell, CIO at The Sedona Group, a Moline, Ill.-based workforce management services provider.

"You bring a programmer or network administrator on board, and they don't have the big-picture view of how the business runs," he says. One recent hire, he notes, could program user interfaces but had no concept of a database. Another didn't know what an invoice was.

Druby agrees that colleges are in continual catch-up mode and have only recently added project management and soft skills training to computer science programs. "They're about five years behind where they need to be," he says. Students can fill that gap by pursuing internships, he suggests. "It can help them understand what the business is about, as well as the components of technology they wouldn't pick up at a university."

Tom Silver, a senior vice president at Dice.com, says more students are doing just that. And combining a technology degree with business knowledge will lead them to the higher-paying areas of IT.

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