As IT's industrial age ends, the humanist era begins

There’s a real skills crisis in IT -- and it’s not a quantity issue. The new IT is not what the old IT was designed to do. For some, the new IT will create opportunities; for others, soul-searching and less relevance.
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

There’s a real skills crisis in IT -- and it's not a quantity issue. Just as the industrial age transformed manufacturing, IT has brought a level of efficiency and productivity to today's businesses. But, even the industrial age had to yield to new ages and new business needs, IT must do the same.

Listen to the technology market today. You’ll hear a whole new body of concepts being batted about.

Systems of Record are giving way to Systems of Engagement. User Interfaces are being updated to permit a better User Experience. Cloud solutions are displacing on-premises applications. Lighter, leaner IT groups are using utility computing (e.g., public) cloud solutions. Developers are building mobile and e-commerce apps. The list just goes on and on.

Before you dismiss these as isolated trends or marketing mantras, I’d urge you to really see what’s going on: IT is definitely in the midst of a transformation. IT was once a function that tamed the semiconductor and brought order to a bunch of ones and zeroes so that transactions could be efficiently and accurately tabulated. Now, IT must be something altogether different. IT must become a competency that does more than crunch numbers, process journal entries and print reports. IT just isn’t the study or use of databases anymore.

The modern business needs IT to be something much different. It wants an IT discipline to solve a very real and very different set of business problems. The new IT problems involve people, emotions, and other less-than-static, logical or perfect resources.

The new IT is not what the old IT was designed to do. For some, the new IT will create opportunities; for others, soul-searching and less relevance.  

The shift

Academics, policy makers, CIOs and IT workers need to look hard at the changing IT landscape to see some massive shifts coming in the skills needs of corporate IT. The future may be close, too, as application software vendors, analytics vendors and others are already making big shifts in the composition and education/work background of their teams.

These technical skills ... may be entering the back-end, long-tail decline of their market importance.

An IT department’s skillset today is a direct reflection of the systems that the team has historically supported. In many IT shops, it wouldn’t be unusual to find the majority of people with technical backgrounds. That’s because these persons have been tasked with operating and/or developing a number of transaction systems. 

But let’s look closer: These personnel have had to operate, patch and maintain on-premises applications and their associated hardware for the last 2-4 decades. The skills needed to do this often required data processing degrees, various software certifications, knowledge of operating systems, database tuning skills, etc.  Additional IT pros have solid programming skills that permit them to build transaction processing or book-of-record systems.  But, through and through, these people are technical and have technical backgrounds. You won’t find many liberal arts majors or any majors that have “-ology” in their name.

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While all of these technical skills have been instrumental in advancing major productivity and efficiency gains in businesses, they may be entering the back-end, long-tail decline of their market importance. The fact is, companies want a different kind of solution today and they want it on different environments. Businesses now need a different kind of IT pro to drive the next wave of computing for their firm.


Where you see the biggest change drivers already in play are in some of the select application software firms. These companies are creating mobile applications that are way more than a re-platforming or porting of a traditional book of record application to new form factor. The best new mobile apps are designed anew, not just for the smaller form factor, but for a different kind of user with different wants and limitations.  The modern mobile user wants something “designed” not “programmed.”  Likewise, they want something “designed” for their on-the-go lifestyle and mobile devices – they don’t want “ported” applications. These differences are monstrous.

First needed skill: Design apps to maximize the user experience

Infor, the New York City-based application software vendor, is continuing the reinvention of its application software. They hired a number on non-IT people with major design chops from Madison Avenue, fashion and other disciplines to create new applications that are visually appealing and compelling to use. Tell the truth, when was the last time you felt your ERP software’s input screens were visually appealing or compelling to use? Probably never!

Now IT must have the discerning eye of an artiste. IT must create "experiences" for their systems’ users.

In the mobile world, software designers need to develop smaller apps that are (and I know this sounds cliché) actually easy-to-use. Apps should be brainless to operate successfully. This is actually quite a difficult task as it involves more than usability measurements. The best designers look at color palettes and debate things like how well a color-blind person will do with these screens. The best designers fight with the internal IT people who want to put every function and feature on a screen when most users need only to complete 4-5 fields. This new kind of design requires an attention to details that haven’t been taught to several generations of IT pros.

Great design skills and an "eye" for design are often skills that don’t spring forth from nested if/then code statements. Great design is often like great art: you know it when you see it. "Seeing" great input screens or reports were never something I was taught when I was a programmer. If you think a data-laden, 93-column spreadsheet is a work of art, I’d be willing to bet most users would disagree. In fact, I don’t know how you "see" a 93-column anything on today’s mobile devices anyway.

IT is moving away from a time where we felt compelled to put in every feature, function, data element, etc. into every report, screen, etc.  No, now IT must have the discerning eye of an artiste. IT must create "experiences" for their systems’ users. Users want something more than rows and columns of numbers. They want a visceral, compelling, highly communicative user experience.

I suspect most IT shops have little of this skill in-house.

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Second needed skill: An intimate knowledge of how the human mind works, feels and thinks

Look at the vendors developing analytic and e-commerce applications. They’re spending fortunes on people with outstanding social science backgrounds. They’re hiring behavioral scientists, sociologists, psychologists and more. They need these people to help their technology-savvy IT folks develop apps that work with the humans who use them and not work against them.

Think about it: Could your IT shop figure out “Why do so many shoppers on our e-tail site abandon their shopping carts just before checkout?” Would they know what the probable root causes could be? Would they know how to collect this information?

Like in any great systems development effort, wouldn’t you want to bring in the real subject matter experts for this?

Chances are your IT shop could identify when the abandonment occurs and whether internet bandwidth speeds were a contributing factor. But to really understand why people exhibit the behavior they do requires specialized knowledge in how people think and how they feel. The root cause for this behavior could be due to the site asking for lots of personnel information pre-order. This could cause some users to instantly shy away from the site as your firm hasn’t done anything yet to be a trusted supplier to this customer. Trust, perception and other soft-side knowledge could be economically powerful to know if one wants to develop great applications and analytics.

I’m not arguing that IT people are devoid of these skills. We all have a fair measure of these or else we wouldn’t be functioning members of civilization. But, like in any great systems development effort, wouldn’t you want to bring in the real subject matter experts for this?

A couple of years ago, I did a consulting gig with a brilliant industrial psychologist. Each day, we sat in on the operating committee meetings of a major manufacturer. Throughout the day, we would quietly compare notes. We both had many, if not most, of the same observations but I couldn’t tell you exactly why I reached my conclusions. He could not only confirm my observations but he also knew the science behind them and he knew some mighty slick techniques to really move the client along.

The new IT must strike a balance between the behavioral sciences and technical/engineering disciplines. Every CIO must now ask of themselves: “What’s the correct right brain/ left brain skill set needed for our IT group?” Let me know if you have this already answered.

Next: An area that IT should absolutely own

Third needed skill: Translation and transition skills

This is an area that IT should absolutely own.


All of these years with Agile, Scrum, etc. have created a lot of people skilled in developing pieces of applications fast. But in conversations with IT leaders (and some of my own client experiences have borne out), it is getting really rare to find someone who knows how to take the output from these new applications and actually get it into other systems, databases and clouds.

IT needs people that connect the dots. They must make the new user experiences and psychologically sound apps actually work.

I’ve personally run into “Functional Analysts” who do not know a bit of this. They know what configuration settings to enter and little else. Businesses need people who can translate and transition data from different applications to/from different systems and data stores. This skill seems to be in short supply.

I recently heard a keynote speaker, himself a Gen Y worker, state that Gen Y people really admire the Boomer generation as Boomers could design and build the Apple iPhone. He was convinced that “his people”, fellow Gen Y-ers, don’t understand a thing about how you’d set about designing something so complex and powerful. His generation just knows how to work every little bit of functionality there is out of these devices.  And, this is the problem in a nutshell. IT needs people who really do understand how tough it sometimes is to make beautiful, new mobile or analytic apps really deliver business value.

IT needs people that connect the dots. They must make the new user experiences and psychologically sound apps actually work. This isn’t IT operations – this is a new kind of integration skill.

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What’s a CIO to do?

I’m waiting to interview the CIO that actually asks a jobseeker to bring along their portfolio to the interview. Even if that happens, I’m not sure most CIOs would know how to evaluate a design professional’s body of work. In fact, I’m not sure most CIOs are actually qualified to evaluate any of the candidates with great design and social science backgrounds.  And, that’s a problem for CIOs.

When I recently spoke with Sam Yen of SAP, we discussed this very problem. He confirmed that “If a CIO is technical, maybe they shouldn’t do the hiring of the visual designer.” As our conversation progressed, he indicated that his firm used a leading design firm to vet potential candidates.

Sam also identified at least three kinds of design skill types businesses will need:

  • User Researchers – These folks identify and define different user "points of view". They can assess whether a solution will really work for these different user types. These researchers get into the heads of the people who will use the software. These designers have great empathy skills.
  • Interaction Designers – These individuals create low- and high-fidelity mockups that they share with potential users. They use these to model solutions and to understand how people will react or interact with them.  It is through these interactions that the human experience is really tested, understood and refined.
  • Visual Designers – Visual designers do more than suggest a palette of colors to work with. They understand how placement of specific imagery, logos, content, color, etc. will affect the user and their experience. They understand how very minor changes in the copy can have a profound effect on how well a user likes a site (and will keep coming back and/or spend money there). They see the topography of the site.

Sam also said that few designers can do all of these skills. Each one may be strong in one skill set but not in all.

These new IT skills will give IT teams something Sam called “ambidextrous thinking”. This is when IT has people strong in both left and right brain skills. Systems designed with ambidextrous thinking are highly desirable for users. They are nuanced. And, they deliver competitive advantage.

IT must change to remain business relevant.  IT will be composed of a different, broader set of skills. These skills though have never been placed together before and the transition will challenge business leaders, IT professionals and academics. 

The Challenge

IT is entering its post-Industrial Age. Speeds and feeds are soooooo last Tuesday.

I suspect the new age will have a more humanist focus as IT must learn how to deliver insights into why and how people really want to do things. We need IT to do more than just be recorders and tabulators. For IT to uncover new truths and provide all-new kinds of guidance, the profession needs an infusion of new skills. IT will need to work more with hunches, senses and other less than perfect (but quite human) data. It is this soft science that I believe will drive some of my very logical, Spock-like peers crazy.

Academics will likely want to debate just how many "ology" courses a new minted IT major should have.

  • How can IT build and monitor anti-fraud systems if its staff doesn’t fully understand how the aberrant or criminal mind works?
  • Should IT be designing the A/B tests that measure the effectiveness of different marketing campaign imagery/formats?
  • How much should IT people know about the demographic and psychographic attributes of their firm’s customers?
  • Should IT staff assist in the interpretation of analytic results? What will shape their basis for doing so?
  • How can IT design new solutions that speak to a user in a way that is competitively differentiating and visually attractive?
  • How will IT build external-facing solutions that hook the user, engage them quite deeply and keep them coming back for more?
  • Should IT determine the cadence for balancing practicality, security, visceral appeal and other factors (or is IT doomed to deal with just one discipline?)?
  • Can/should IT technical professionals be taught/trained to be more empathetic?

CIOs could do well to check out a couple of leading application and analytic vendors as they are confronting these kinds of design issues in spades. I mentioned Infor and SAP earlier as they’ve put a lot of money behind their effort and the visual changes are quite telling. But, so too is a chat with the Infor Hook & Loop creative team.

If CIOs and academics won’t make this change voluntarily, the systems integrators are already moving in this fashion. These firms are picking up design talent left and right.

Most integrators generally like to be at or slightly ahead of many market moves. They know that cloud solutions are clearly kicking the on-premises apps to the street. They know that computing power has gone to a utility model (much like electricity went this way almost a century ago). They also know that there may be an opportunity to acquire a lot of great design talent and re-sell that knowledge to CIOs (with an appropriate consulting fee markup, of course).

Integrators and app vendors are telegraphing the future of IT already if you’re savvy enough to see the clues. The time for IT to start changing its skills mix is now.

And, if you’re a CIO or IT executive with some clout in higher education, think about having some real heart-to-heart conversations with the deans of those institutions. Your candor and insights on the matter might really stimulate some change in those storied organizations.

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