Future shop: How tech trends will reshape the IT department structure

If anyone in the corporate hierarchy is accustomed to change it should be the CIO, who has been bearing the brunt of Moore’s Law for quite some time. But in the coming years emerging technologies from robotics to artificial intelligence will dramatically alter the IT department structure in ways that may render it unrecognizable by today’s standards.

Interviews with CIOs, industry analysts, futurists and IT recruitment firms paint a picture of a smaller and more heavily automated IT shop. The new setting will see many manual tasks disappear, while certain skills such as business process re-engineering re-emerge. It will also see the rise of the citizen technologist who will take on duties that once required a programmer’s knowledge and the increasing importance of soft skills in a department where hard, technical know-how traditionally held sway.

Susan Tan

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

“They have to start planning now to think about what skills they will need and how to get those skills,” she said.

Indeed, CIOs won’t have to wait a decade to witness a modification to the IT department structure. The effects of a number of technologies — notably automated software testing, robotic process automation (RPA), no code/low code platforms and AI — are already being felt. Automated testing, for example, is fairly widespread, while other change agents, such as RPA and AI, have yet to impose their greatest influence on IT operations.

Ted Ross

The environment challenges CIOs to create more flexible, fluid IT departments able to absorb waves of technology change, 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. “It’s a tall task and yet it is a very exciting one.”

The future is now: Test automation makes inroads

The future has already arrived in the field of software testing. Dimensional Research, a market research firm based in Sunnyvale, Calif., polled 700 software quality professionals in December 2016 and found about a third of them work in mostly or entirely automated testing environments. In the 2015 survey, a quarter of the respondents reported mostly or entirely automated testing environments. Both surveys were commissioned by Sauce Labs Inc., an automated testing vendor.

Diane Hagglund

Diane Hagglund, principal researcher at Dimensional Research, said the percentage of software quality professionals using mostly or entirely manual testing remained steady at a bit more than 40% over the two surveys. This means that the rise in test automation came mostly from a third group: respondents who reported a 50/50 split of automated and manual testing in the 2015 poll.

“If you extend the trends, the people who are committing to automation are going to go all the way,” Hagglund said. “They start to see the ROI and start doing more.”

Automation’s momentum is disrupting the testing profession and creating demand for new skill sets. While demand for manual testers may decline, Hagglund suggested the need for test automation engineers is on the rise. She recalled a recent conversation with a CIO who revealed finding such engineers can prove a struggle.

“It’s hard to hire those people now,” she said.

Hagglund said test automation engineers need to do much more that write test scripts. Many of the key attributes fall into the soft skills category. For example, test engineers need to understand where the defects tend to come from in an organization’s software development process and design tests accordingly.

Hagglund said they also need to create tests with user experience in mind:

“How do you really beat up a piece of code to know if your customer experience is going to be good?”

Atilla Tinic

Atilla Tinic, CIO at Level 3 Communications, said the company is investing in an automated testing suite. The company operates many integrated applications — quoting, ordering, fulfillment and billing systems — that support various telecommunications products. Automation aims to ease the process of testing those end-to-end systems.

“It can be pretty onerous to test things from the very beginning of the quote-to- cash process,” Tinic explained.

Automation is changing the IT department structure at Level 3. For one, automation is bringing testing closer to the development function, Tinic said. For the past couple of decades, testing has been a discrete group in an IT organization, running its own test scenarios based on its understanding of requirements, he noted. Now, the aim is to have the test team work hand-in-hand with the analysts who capture the user stories — descriptions of software features from the users’ points of view.

“We should be automating, as much as possible, the test scenarios on those user stories,” Tinic said.

Automation is changing the test team dynamic — and the IT department structure — at Level 3. With the heavy-lifting of manual testing eliminated, testers have greater flexibility to be deployed on different development teams. In parallel with that development, Tinic aims to change the mindset of following an organizational chart and maintaining strict reporting structures.

No code and the advent of the citizen technologist

Also in the development sphere, the rise of no code platforms promises to reshape the IT department’s role. No code platforms target business users and offer the ability to create applications without programming knowledge. They are a key tool for citizen technologists.

Jason Bloomberg

Jason Bloomberg, president at Intellyx, an industry analysis and advisory firm focused on agile digital transformation, said the history of no code dates back to Microsoft Access, a database, and associated development tools that let business users create applications. Access debuted in 1992.

The latest generation of no code technology “is Access on steroids,” Bloomberg said. But platforms with drag-and-drop simplicity can end up generating applications that contribute to the shadow IT problem, he added.

The job for CIOs and IT department is to find ways to accommodate citizen technologists without creating application chaos.

“The challenge now becomes, ‘How do we get the value out of no code?'” Bloomberg noted. “We want to empower citizen developers, but we need to maintain security and compliance and ensure consistency across multiple departments and not have redundant investment.”

Tinic said CIOs need to think about the arrival of the citizen developer, a term he called “a good way of redefining shadow IT.” He said the onus is on the IT organization to advance standards and frameworks and avoid the proliferation of independent applications.

Over time, there will be less of a distinction between the role of a traditional IT person and the citizen developer or citizen integrator.

Jason Bloombergpresident, Intellyx

Those standards and frameworks, for example, might designate a particular data repository as a single source of truth for the enterprise or require developers to make service calls to a single catalog for the product-supporting applications that need one.

“We are building an ecosystem and every platform in the ecosystem has a role and a responsibility,” Tinic said.

LA’s Ross said he likes the idea of having business users digitize and improve business processes. But he said no code applications can hit a ceiling with respect to scalability and features. He said business users can over build on a no code platform and find themselves with an application that stretches beyond what it can effectively accomplish. Security and data quality issues can also surface, he added.

When user-developed apps reach that ceiling, IT needs to be there to offer “a bigger and stronger platform,” Ross said. For instance, a no code application reaching its limits could migrate into a broader, IT-supported CRM system, he noted.

Bloomberg 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.”

Low code and the future of software development

In distinction to no code platforms, low code platforms target professional developers and are designed to take over from them the basic mechanics of setting up integrations, building interfaces and similar routine tasks, Bloomberg said.

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In the near term, low code platforms are “freeing developers up from a lot of the work that is not particularly high value for the organization or particularly interesting for the developer.”

At this point, low code, is helping enterprises retain and motivate developers, rather than displacing them, according to Bloomberg. IT departments never have enough good developers and low code lets organizations assign them to more productive activities, he said.

The growth of low code and no code could eventually make more of an impression on the IT department structure, however.

“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.”

While no code/low code soldiers onward, the industry’s appetite for traditional developers remains healthy.

John Reed

“Developers are still in high demand for technology departments,” said John Reed, senior executive director at Robert Half Technology, an IT recruitment firm. “While there are alternative options available, classic development skills are still sought out by technology leaders.”

Reed cited Robert Half’s hiring plans survey that shows 39% of CIOs are in the market for web development skills, while 32% are seeking mobile development expertise.

Bloomberg said IT departments will still need professional technologists who understand the ins and outs of enterprise integration and the know-how to leverage the security infrastructure.

“It is still a specialized skill set, but it is shifting away from being able to hand code,” he said.

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