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Over 50? Out of work? Watch out because IT is about to eat itself

AI is coming to take sysadmins' jobs, but greybeards have an escape route

Recently, I ran into a friend who’d been offered the option of a redundancy with a substantial payout. He took the redundancy - it seemed a good deal - but now finds himself unable to land another job.

My friend has worked in IT for over thirty years, evolving from ‘computer operations’ to ‘systems administration’ to ‘DevOps’ as the field matured. When a career in management beckoned, he turned it down, instead opting to focus on his technical skills. At this point, he’s seen just about everything from the introduction of the workstation to the rise of the cloud.

This may be why no one wants to hire him. “I go in for interviews,” he says, “and I’m being interviewed by managers fifteen or twenty years younger than me. I know more than them. I’ve seen more, I’ve done more. And I think that scares them.”

Never having imagined being past his prime in his mid-50s, my friend has growing concerns about what comes next - from him, and for IT.

Although IT likes to project a self-image of youthful competence, most of its practices have their origins in technologies at least a few decades old. UNIX recently turned 40, the Web has passed the quarter-century mark, and even Amazon Web Services has been around for almost a decade.

Now that IT has history behind it, real value lies with individuals who have contributed to and learned from that history. Find a weird bug inside of an arcane *NIX tool? It’s likely an IT old-timer has, too - and knows the fix for it.

In the early 1980s, a comfortable job in an IT department could easily last a decade or more. Engineers might float from job to job (I certainly did) but the backbone IT operations staff stuck around, year after year. That consistency made it possible for organisations to implement tremendous technical changes with a minimum of disruption. The support staff held all the bits together (often by hand).

Today a firm might outsource IT support to one of the Indian or Philippine IT giants, even use a service like (or any of its numerous clones) to purchase support talent on the spot market, in hourly increments. Cheaper, more flexible, but lacking the depth of experience that a long spell in an organisation brings with it.

A hidden price of flexibility is decreased resilience.

Complex systems become brittle where the talent that brought those systems to life has been cut to save costs.

An angry sysadmin can bring a firm to its knees. A clever sysadmin could save that firm from disaster. You don’t always need to call on that talent, but you do always need to keep that talent around, because you never know when it will be needed. Experience is the ultimate insurance.

If IT ignores the necessity of that experience, it will find another way in. I reckon my friend will soon be spruiking himself online, finding there the clients that value his expertise. But a bigger movement is afoot, one that changes the entire landscape.

For half a century IT has been destroying jobs. The legions of clerks and secretaries responsible for the maintenance of post-War ‘Organisational Man’ have gone the way of buggy whips and manual typewriters. Dominated by IT, the service sector - from finance to retail and everything in between - conforms to processes created by business analysts and programmers and sysadmins.

Now that snake has begun to consume its own tail.

In January, we got a peek into the future of IT when Canadian firm ROSS launched its eponymous product, a smooth blending of IBM’s Watson weak-AI technology and the contents of a vast legal library. ROSS parses law texts, ‘understands’ them, and offers advice on legal questions.

That’s amazing enough -- but what happens when someone gets the crazy idea to let Watson read all of Stack Overflow and O’Reilly and Slashdot and Google Groups and GitHub and all of the other things everywhere that we in IT use as resources to help us do our jobs?

For the last several years we’ve used cloud technology to automate away much of the physical plant of IT. When this IT-focused Watson goes live (my bet is that we’ll see it before the end of this year) it will instantly automate away almost all of the IT functions that haven’t already been outsourced. Fifty years after putting everyone else out of work, IT will make much of itself redundant.

Some might say that’s a long-overdue bit of karma.

Fortunately, IT also creates jobs. Businesses inconceivable just a few years ago thrive today because IT has so completely permeated our daily lives. My friend needs to look for his next job not in an operations centre, but in a startup that scaffolds upon the foundation he created, doing wonderful new things. Up is the way forward. ®

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