Will we have IT departments in ten years' time? Will we even have an IT profession? Is IT just another utility? These were just some of the questions that were raised at a BCS Thought Leadership Debate on 30 April 2009 called 'IT futures: the death of the IT profession, as we know it?'

To kick start the event, two speakers, Chris Yapp from Capgemini and Kate Silver from the Cabinet Office, gave their insights into the question of whether the IT profession will survive.

Although the world's economies are currently struggling it was said that now is an important time to have this debate. It's also as relevant a question for people who have been in the industry for 30 years as those who are just starting their careers. In fact when you look at IT, it is one of the success stories even after the dot com bubble burst in 2001 as IT is everywhere now.

Although technology is all pervasive in the UK we don't have any people who actually create much in IT, such as coding operating systems or writing compilers. But the industry has grown despite this and the negative image that many have of it. And although many bemoan the lack of pure IT graduates coming out of university, IT is now made up of multi-talented people: doctors, engineers, scientists, accountants, musicians, photographers, artists - all of whom use IT as an integral part of their job.

Because IT is in so many things it is seen as a tool to get things done. One example that was cited was about a meeting of web entrepreneurs. At best, half the people at the meeting said that they considered themselves as working in IT. Technology to them, and many business people, is simply the tool that enables them to do their job.

One of the speakers said that the reason for the death of IT is because of how far it has come, but that it's a very important point in time to have the debate. The speakers gave some examples of how pervasive IT is:

  • There is more software outside of what many would consider pure IT than is in it now. 
  • Only 23 per cent of chips from Intel go into computers, the rest go into consumer electronics.

They then went on to compare computing to company cars. Many people don't have the typical company car of old but get to pick and choose their car or even use their own. In the future the same may be true for computers because many people have a far more powerful machine at home than they do at work.

They also predicted that technology will be taken for granted, like it is in health informatics. It will become invisible with the focus more towards the sector it's used in. They also felt that there will be an even bigger growth in consumer IT than there is at the moment.

Finishing off they felt that it's not all doom and gloom but in the IT industry it needs to be clear as to who should be members (of BCS?) so that the industry doesn't look back. In fact  the changing nature of IT, they believe, creates the opportunity to develop the profession.

The next speaker also talked about people who use IT every day, those termed digital natives. These young people see technology as being essential, such as their mobile phone which to them is as important as a watch. In fact some don't even have a watch, just a phone. And when it comes to doing their homework, whereas in the past they would copy a friend's, now they turn to the internet and use, or copy, that.

To this new breed of workers, who are already in the workplace, technology is the norm. These young people have high expectations of IT but they don't necessarily want to know how it works.

The speaker then quoted from their own experience of speaking to students on IT courses. The feedback they got was that the courses are not about what the students want to think about. The students want to code games or look at fixing problems in existing applications, not do things like code software that works out how much fuel petrol pumps dispense.

They also said that it's not just these digital natives who are demanding. Many IT users are very savvy because they are used to computers in the home. They are also aware of the cost of IT and so are often surprised when they are told that something is too expensive. They look at how much the company is being charged and say 'but you can get it much cheaper in PC World'.

So, what are the implications for the IT profession? The IT industry as a whole needs to raise its game, be agile, responsive and innovative while still being security conscious, trusted and trustworthy.

We can talk about the impact of cloud computing, commoditisation, iTunes-style application repositories, offshoring and the impact they may have. But the answer to these is the continued evolution of skills.

The speakers finished by saying that the boundaries between professions is blurring so perhaps what we should really be talking about is not whether we have an IT profession but whether there are professionals who are capable of meeting all challenges.

Then, in regards to this, are employers, professional bodies, education providers and government looking far enough ahead to where the respective businesses will be going and the skills that professionals will need? Added to this is enough being done to encourage, enable and push people towards this?

The debate

One of the main points that came out of the discussion was the unanimous feeling that the IT profession will not disappear but will morph as it has done since the inception of IT.

However, there was also universal agreement that the internal IT department, as we know it today, will disappear sooner rather than later.Some even commented that they felt it is already dead. There was also a feeling that IT has become commoditised with computing on tap with functionality such as cloud computing.

Following on from this another point that was raised several times is that IT no longer provides businesses with a competitive advantage. Many companies simply have to have some form of IT in order to survive. In fact one person even went so far as to say that IT only really benefits the consumer, it doesn't benefit the company at all.

With these points in mind the discussion moved on to what the industry should be called. Some said it shouldn't be IT but IS, for information systems. Another said that IT professionals should align themselves more towards being change agents and that CIOs should focus more on strategy. On this point somebody pointed out that this isn't always possible because IT departments often have to spend most of their time fixing things and don't have time to be strategic.

There was also a debate on how far the T in CITP should go. Where do you draw the line? This was all in response to the perennial question surrounding the number of IT graduates we have in the UK. It was pointed out that although in India they have around 1 million science graduates, compared to only 45,000 in the UK, you don't need to have such a technical background to work in IT. The majority of people who work in IT didn't do a full-time IT course at university.

The comparison was then made between IT and medicine. This was on the basis that there isn't one sole IT job but many specialised areas, just as in medicine. However, what was agreed on was that the IT profession doesn't have a basic standard that all practitioners must meet. Another suggestion linked to this was that perhaps IT should break into separate threads as engineering has done.