The evolution of Information Technology



As a Dean for the technology faculties of a private college in Canada, I’m always looking to make our programs more aligned to the industry - my motto is: always look forward and never look back!

However, when it comes to Information Technology (IT), I regularly find that the general perception of IT jobs is stuck in the past by at least a decade. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met people who think that IT guys are stuck in the back closet of some company doing some menial job, such as re-soldering chips on a computer motherboard much like working on the engine of an old car. {shiver}

By discussing how the IT industry has changed and reinvented itself several times over the past three decades in this post, I hope to educate and enlighten those affected - enjoy!

Firstly, IT wasn’t always called IT. In the 1980s, you were either a software technician or hardware technician. In other words, you either spent your entire job installing the computer hardware according to the vendor’s instructions (including primitive network hardware and cabling such as Thinnet and LANtastic), or you spent your entire job configuring the operating systems and software applications on those computers. Software technicians were often called system operators (or sysops for short). Regardless, these jobs were relatively easy, and did not involve soldering irons ;-)

In the 1980s, anyone who made software programs were simply called programmers, and were often shut away in the back closet and left alone.

By the early 1990s, the words software engineer and hardware engineer started cropping up to replace software technician and hardware technician. This was a time where PC hardware and applications were experiencing massive growth in the marketplace. As a result, these jobs ended up involving more user support on top of simply installing the software and hardware. Plus, the roles started to merge, and the term computer engineer became commonly used for this role.

Another cool thing happened in the 1990s: interconnecting PCs using computer networks and the Internet became common. The term network administrator appeared, and described someone who could install the hardware and software needed to make a network or obtain Internet access.

People started thinking of their PCs as “clients” and the computers that held resources (file, print, Web, etc.) as “servers.” Consequently, client administrator and server administrator were also frequently used to describe jobs. A client administrator often installed and supported PC applications (lots of user support here), and a server administrator maintained the server operating systems and software (e.g. Windows NT 4.0).

With the explosion of applications in the 1990s, the term programmer was slowly replaced with the term application developer (because they “developed” applications).

It is important to note that the 1990s still had a large amount of specialization in the industry. Regardless of what role you had in the 1990s with computers, you likely had a very specific job rather than a generic job. In other words, you worked with client PCs only, or a few software products on the servers, or a specific type of server, or a specific type of application development……

Around 2001, the Dot Com Bubble burst, and there was massive shrinkage in the job market. Whenever there is shrinkage, it’s an opportunity to reinvent things……and so the term Information Technology (IT) was popularized! IT encompasses all of the jobs discussed previously, plus any new jobs that had anything to do with computers (installation, configuration, support, security, networks, application development, etc.).

With fewer IT jobs until about 2004, companies kept those who could wear multiple hats. In other words, IT people generally had to support multiple systems (client/server), as well as networks and software. Additionally, application developers generally had to do multiple types of development as part of their job (e.g. Web development, application program development, server development, etc.).

Another neat side effect of this “generalization effect” of the early 2000s is that communication barriers broke down. IT people had to talk effectively with others at various levels of the organization in order to get support and funding for hardware and software to drive business needs, as well as provide support to people at different levels (a server administrator often had to support end users with problems too!). IT people who could communicate better and in a more professional manner were kept and promoted, while others were left to do menial jobs or fired. As a result, the term IT professional was used to denote roles within the IT industry by the mid 2000s. The word “professional” reflected that these IT people were not grubby hardware or software guys stuck in the back closet with a soldering iron.

On the application development front, the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 led to a massive mobile hardware and software revolution, that in turn fuelled our reliance on the Internet. Applications started to be called “apps” and Web applications started to be called “Web apps” - so the role of application developer was morphed into app developer.

Regardless of whether you are an IT professional or app developer today, you must have the following traits (or be willing to learn them) in order to be attractive to organizations:

  • Professional communication skills
  • Time management skills (you will be working on multiple projects and dealing with various teams and people during the day)
  • Software, hardware and networking skills (even app developers must excel at this)
  • Development skills across a wide variety of platforms (only for app developers)
  • Intense desire to learn new technologies all the time

Compare this to the hardware and software technicians of the 1980s, who simply had to:

  • Not be dead
  • Know stuff about hardware or software

I won’t lie - IT is much harder today than it ever was, but it is also far more rewarding than it ever was too. IT people are constantly learning new technologies, communicating with others and managing their time - I’d take that over a menial job any day!