Plugging the Skills Gap… If There Is One

Puzzle Missing PieceIn the early days of automobiles, the driver’s biggest friend was their tool box.  Cars, although simple, tended to break down quite often, and needed a tweak here, a thump there and a bit replaced over there for many a journey to be completed.

As time went on, not only did cars become more dependable, but groups like AAA started up to offer roadside assistance to replace the need for any deep mechanical skill in the average driver.  Deeper knowledge was provided by garage mechanics, who became the people tasked with ensuring that a car ran from service to service.  Now, even these “grease monkeys” are finding that they do not need in-depth skills – a simple plug-in device reads the history of the car and monitors any problems.  Indeed, with some cars, such as BMWs, everything is monitored on the fly and details sent back to BMW so that pro-active maintenance can be carried out to the vehicle.

And so it goes with other technology – there are fewer people around who know how a computer works; fewer still who understand TVs and other household electronics.  Each item has been turned into a black box – the skill is in dealing with how best to use the item: knowledge of the internal workings is not required.

The same has been seen in enterprise IT.  The oft-bandied around term of “the commoditization of IT” is happening, yet we still hear cries from the industry that there is a dearth of available skills out there.  How can these two contrary things both be true?

Sure, for the average IT employee working for a business, the level of IT skills required are diminishing.  The growth in need is for skills to best utilize the available resources to support the business – a job that used to be shared between business analysts and technology practitioners.  With convergence bringing compute, storage and network technologies into single systems, the grease monkey IT worker is a dying breed.  The convergence of network and systems management tools with intelligent root cause analysis and reporting, combined with greater (and cheaper) levels of equipment redundancy and automated remediation means that the network professional of yesteryear is no longer in the demand they once were.  The main role for tomorrow’s IT employee will be to be the translator between what the business needs and what is available from the mix of on-premise and public cloud services.

However, for service providers, there is a need for a greater level of technical skills.  Getting every last ounce of performance from basic building blocks is a key requirement: those who understand how to hyper-tune commodity hardware to operate at the edge of capability are still in demand.

It is the vendor community that has the biggest struggle, though.  For example, in the network world, the skills that are required are not of the “Hey, look – I have a piece of paper showing that I can put together and run a Cisco/Juniper/Whoever network” type.  No – they need those who can look beyond what is already in the market; those who can come up with the future generations of networks that will be able to support the internet of everything (IoE) and massively hybridized compute platforms.

As we move from hierarchical through fabric and software defined networks to whatever is needed next, the technical skills that push the boundaries of science and engineering further and further are where there is a failure to provide sufficient skills.

With technology being so easy to use for children growing up today, the thought of using bread boards and soldering irons is not something that many kids are now looking to as a hobby.  Children are less used to building their own carts, using Meccano or simple Lego blocks to fuel their imagination.  Where are the kids whose first thought on seeing a new item was “I want to take it apart, find out what is inside it, understand how it works – and put it back together again”?  The need for immediate gratification seems to be stifling imagination in many cases.

Necessity being the mother of invention has been a major driver for many IT pioneers.  Lack of available memory, slow storage systems, and barely existing dial-up connectivity all forced early computer pioneers to discover or invent new ways of taking the next step; of driving IT forward.  The majority of today’s technical wizards have grown up with a deep understanding of how each of the different parts of a technical environment have to work with each other to get something to happen.

We are losing this – the IT platform is becoming a commoditized black box.  We can hope that an Elon Musk comes along and manages to throw a Tesla in the works.  By looking at what could be relatively unpromising technology out there (as Musk did with the electric car) and working on maximizing its capabilities, the Tesla car has changed the way that electric cars are viewed and used.

The ability of copper and fiber in standard usage to meet network needs may be getting close to becoming a constraint on how hybrid computing and the IoE can operate: now is the time for the world to focus on truly disruptive skills from the next generation.

About the author
Clive Longbottom