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What IT automation trends mean for the future of the shop

Smart technology is creating citizen technologists who can now function in a traditional IT department, even though they're not trained. Here's what that means for the future.

When technology becomes ubiquitous, how does the IT department remain vital? It's an important question to ask because cutting-edge technologies -- from robotics to artificial intelligence -- are making it possible for almost anyone to do tasks that used to be reserved for those with technical training. The rise of these so-called citizen technologists is going to force sweeping changes in how IT departments function, and in IT automation trends.

The changes have already begun. Interviews with CIOs, industry analysts, futurists and IT recruitment firms already paint a picture of a smaller and more heavily automated IT shop. Manual tasks are disappearing, while other skills, such as business process re-engineering, are re-emerging.

In fact, Susan Tan, a research vice president at Gartner, cited a 2016 Gartner survey in which 80% of the CIOs and IT leaders polled predicted that the skills and knowledge their organizations will need in 10 years will have little resemblance to what they have on hand today.

This rapidly evolving environment challenges CIOs to create more flexible, fluid IT departments able to absorb waves of IT automation trends, deal with new workforce requirements and meet overarching business objectives.

"The IT staff needs to know how to execute new technologies, support previous technologies and always look to the value for the business," said Ted Ross, CIO for the City of Los Angeles.

Tomorrow's software development today

Automation's momentum is already disrupting the testing profession and creating demand for new skill sets.

While demand for manual testers may decline, Diane Hagglund, principal researcher for Dimensional Research, a market research firm based in Sunnyvale, Calif., suggested the need for test automation engineers is on the rise. Test automation engineers not only need coding skills, but also soft skills and a strong understanding of the user experience, all new attributes not seen in previous IT automation trends.

More changes will come from the rise of no-code platforms. They are a key tool for citizen technologists, but they're a challenge for IT departments that need to keep a handle on the shadow IT problem.

Jason Bloomberg, president at Intellyx, an industry analysis and advisory firm focused on agile digital transformation, said he sees the IT department becoming more of a service provider and facilitator, providing resources that citizen developers can "mix and match within the constraints of security and compliance." He sees the separation between IT and the citizen technologist breaking down.

"Everyone is in IT in the digital workplace," he said. "Over time, there will be less of a distinction between the role of a traditional IT person and the citizen developer or citizen integrator."

And when it comes to other IT automation trends, like low-code platforms -- often aimed at professional developers -- Bloomberg goes further.

"Over time, as these platforms mature, the real question is 'Why do we need professional developers in the enterprise at all,'" Bloomberg said. "An enterprise developer is becoming more of a low-code role, where the coding part of it is less and less."

Drama in the data center

Data center automation has been around for years, but more sophisticated forms now entering IT departments have the potential to liberate or potentially displace employees.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is perhaps the most-discussed example of a technology that stands to significantly reshape the IT operations model. But RPA is part of a broader spectrum of automation that ranges from simple scripts and macros to still-emerging cognitive platforms that merge automation and artificial intelligence.

With respect to those different skills, automation could spark a revival of a 1990s throwback: business process re-engineering. This re-engineering redux could lead to increased demand among CIOs for IT personnel who are able to rethink and redesign processes.

The economics of automation technologies such as RPA have yet to be fully felt, but the effect on the IT operations model may become apparent fairly soon.

"I think you are seeing [RPA] in IT departments now, but in many IT departments, it is still in its very early stages," said David Schatsky, managing director of Deloitte.

He added that the big impact will unfold over the next 12 to 18 months or so. At that point, IT automation trends will force organizations to face a choice: cut workers, or retain them for a transition to higher level jobs.

Some IT departments may indeed prepare workers to take on new IT roles once they are freed of lower level chores. Another possibility is reskilling IT personnel for opportunities in and around the RPA technology itself. CIOs and industry consultants suggest that business process re-engineering could become a hot skill in light of automation.

Once the process redesign work is done, the task then shifts to the care and feeding of software robots. Gartner's Tan envisions a future of bot farms consisting of numerous task-performing software entities, all requiring training, maintenance and upgrades.

"Someone has to become the bot boss," Tan said, noting that bots, at least for the time being, can't manage or maintain themselves.

AI is around the corner

AI may be the next technology wave to shake up the IT operations model. AI will likely play numerous roles, from providing cognitive capabilities to process robotics to enabling natural language processing chatbots.

In this environment, Tan has seen continuing demand for data scientists who can generate and validate hypotheses, create algorithms and understand aspects of AI, such as machine learning and deep learning. But people skilled in data science "are not easy to find," she conceded.

Training IT staff is one approach for overcoming the shortage of data scientists. Another is to acquire software tools that can turn business users into citizen data scientists. Business teams are beginning to use tools that automate elements of the data science process.

In any event, retooling and reskilling appear inevitable as AI makes its way into the IT department. John Reed, senior executive director at Robert Half Technology, an IT recruitment firm, said AI will likely create a shift in the way some people work and the skills they use every day.

As IT automation trends and AI continue to make inroads, CIOs will need people who can close the gap between humans and machines.

"In an AI world, you need people ... who can work equally well with people and technology," Tan said. "CIOs need people who can bridge the gaps between the business, users and the technology."

Steve Brown, author, futurist and former chief evangelist at Intel, said businesses need to begin a dialog on how to build teams in which humans and machines participate as partners.

"Look at every business process in your organization and parse that out into which ... tasks are best done by human, algorithm or robot," Brown said. 

Next Steps

An inside look at how no-code solutions really work

AI's role in app dev -- it's promising and it's coming soon

Why low-code platforms are taking IT by storm and stealth

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