Before We Get to 2020, Let's Look at IT Today

Things are messy, and if history is any guide, they will get even more messy.

Let's get some perspective on this 2020 vision of IT that Julia King writes about in this issue. After all, it's a long time until 2020, when we'll see the elegant dismantling of today's corporate IT. In the meantime, on the run-up to Labor Day, what's the state of IT work in 2010? In a word: messy.

No surprise there. We're in the third year of belt-tightening budgets and long-past-the-fat layoffs. We've squeezed out pretty much all the costs and people we can from IT. Result: We don't have the luxury of working by the book, the job description or the org chart. We're cutting corners, cutting deals with users and cutting across the official lines of responsibility.

And we're mostly keeping everything running. Nobody has much slack, everyone's exhausted, and there's a lot of deferred maintenance that will have to be paid for someday. Still, messy as things are, we're holding our own.

Embrace that mess. If history is any guide, we'll see more of it, not less.

Back to that vision: By 2020, will we really have big chunks of the IT shop up in the cloud, and the rest of IT embedded in non-IT departments?

Maybe. After all, we've been headed that way for decades. Remember, in the 1970s, data processing was all about safeguarding corporate data on the mainframe and cranking out reports on green-bar paper. It was well-ordered, sensible and elegant.

Then came the 1980s and PCs, spreadsheets, LANs, power users, GUIs, real-time data and client/server applications. Now that was a mess -- but a mess that made users a lot more effective. Ever since, IT work has been about getting closer to users, both to help them and to keep them out of trouble. Compared with 1980, we're already embedded in non-IT departments. We're just not on their payrolls.

And the cloud? was launched in 1999, and for the past decade corporate IT has just been getting cloudier, with cloud services, cloud storage and cloud hosting. It almost seems as if we've been on a straight line toward that 2020 vision for the past 30 years, doesn't it?

Except... well, IT is messy, and getting messier. All the elegant, well-defined parts can easily be outsourced or sent up to the cloud, and many have been. What remains is just the messy tactical stuff: quick-hit scripting, emergency problem-solving, fast operational work-arounds.

Oh, there's also the problem of managing all those cloud vendors, whose interests lie in making themselves profitable, not in making your company successful. And there's the challenge of dealing with business users who want things that don't map exactly to what the cloud offers. And business-side VPs who won't cooperate with one another's IT plans. And cloud vendors that evaporate. And CEOs who believe in panaceas. Messy, messy, messy.

Yes, even if classic IT is gone by 2020, all the classic IT problems will still be around -- and still be a mess.

So stop worrying, and embrace the mess. Between the economy and that hovering cloud, this is a year when flexibility, ingenuity and a healthy tolerance for a little chaos are what we need in order to survive and help our companies and our users thrive.

And by Labor Day 2011, maybe we'll have a bit more breathing room -- and a slightly clearer view of 2020.

Return to: IT Careers 2020: Cloudy days ahead

Frank Hayeshas been covering the intersection of business and IT for three decades. Contact him at

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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