I'm old enough to remember when you had to go into the bank to deposit your paycheck or withdraw money (you know, that green paper with pictures of dead guys you need for the cash-only pizza place). Bank branches offered up smiling tellers who were happy to help (once you got through the line) and frequently even knew you by name. One bank even gave me a toaster for opening an account.
Enter ATM technology. Now banks could let customers transact some business without being tied to lobby hours (though you might still have to wait in line). While some banks initially charged ATM fees, ultimately the service became free as long as you stuck with that bank's system. From ATMs we went to online banking, and then something interesting happened: Banks started charging transaction fees if you actually went into a physical branch and spoke to a teller. Never mind free toasters; for a while you'd be lucky to find a working pen. If you were unwilling to transition to the new technology, or if you had a transaction that required a teller, maybe because it was complex or required extra security, you had to cough up the fee.
The result: A model where customers do all the work and the bank charges for the service it used to offer for free.
Sound familiar? If cloud vendors have their way, enterprise tech support is headed in a similar direction. Where once people waited in line for a friendly neighborhood IT guy to provision systems, why not ditch all that and move to a self-service model where users spin up servers or buy software? The assumption is this will save time, be more convenient, and ultimately make IT less expensive for everyone.
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For some classes of users and applications, where the people in question have the experience to self-serve (DevOps) or where the activities are straightforward (paying for business-class Box accounts) this may be fine. But just as in banking, there is a whole parcel of scenarios that are complex or carry security risks that make them inappropriate for self-service.
Still, public cloud price wars and expansions in what you can buy in an "as-a-service" model have caused some pundits to project we're headed for a time where we won't need IT departments. IT services will become so ATM-like -- convenient, low-cost, and easy to operate -- that business people will be happy to run their own IT operations.
I say horse puckie. And moreover, cloud providers should be careful what they wish for.
For the financial industry, the pendulum is swinging back to service. Some banks now compete on how late their branches stay open and how nice their tellers are. Free lollipops and pens abound. Service has become a value-add, and self-service is classified as an optional convenience.
Here's what I believe is a more likely, and more desirable, scenario for IT: We will see more ATM-like cloud use as these services get easier to provision and as end users get more comfortable with the concept (no surprise here).
Even so, IT staffs are not going away. I recently read an article that stated demand for IT professionals is higher now than at any time since 1998. We will continue to need experts to help with handling more complex scenarios or to guide us through sticky issues like security. IT jobs are not being replaced by the cloud, but they are changing the skill sets needed, just as tellers do less check-cashing and more advanced services.
Organizations will continue to select self-service functions based on cost but will choose overall cloud service providers based on value. Even in the race to ever-cheaper automated cloud services, the value of having people with technical expertise will hold steady or increase. An IT service portfolio needs fast, easy-to-provision test environments and secure, high-performance services that demand the IT equivalent of an experienced teller. Organizations must offer the option for both self-service and full service.
Like the settings on that toaster (which is still working) the key is having a choice, and one size doesn't fit all.
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