What trends will power tomorrow's IT careers?

Disruption upends careers as much as it impacts business models. Look to these skills to prepare yourself for digital transformation.

Data scientist. Business intelligence analyst. Container developer. These are all relatively new IT jobs. Digital transformation has ushered in a new era, both in how business is done and in the skill sets needed to transact that business. As digital transformation rolls on—touching every industry, whether tech-based or not—there will be a matching surge in the need for these new roles and roles yet to be identified.

Rather than try to imagine the "jobs" of tomorrow, it's better to observe the trends that will drive new needs. Gartner's Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies offers one perspective. The report focuses on what Gartner believes will impact business in the next five to 10 years, including these three promising trends:

  • Transparently immersive experiences: With the Internet of Things (IoT), the space between people, things, and experiences has been shrunk by computing power. Some technologies tied to this trend are virtual reality, augmented reality, connected homes, and affective computing (computing that reads the emotion of the user).
  • The perceptual smart machine age: Massive creation of data and the explosive growth of computational power will converge to create smart machine technology that can solve problems in unprecedented ways: smart dust, machine learning, conversational user interfaces, autonomous vehicles, and more.
  • The platform revolution: Smart machines will get even smarter and start harnessing the power of machine intelligence. Blockchain technology, quantum computing, and neuromorphic computing present a few examples.

Just as a business looks two, five, even 10 years down the road to plan for the future, IT professionals must also prepare for the changes.

Disruption upends careers as much as it impacts business models. In looking to develop your career for the years to come, take a look at these key trends that could point to possible career paths:

The impact of wearables: Consider how the advent of smartphones changed the app development world. Wearables have the same potential: Just as smartphones shifted from being personal tools to indispensable work tools, the same may hold true for wearable devices. More than 75 million wearables will permeate the workplace by 2020, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, "The Wearable Life 2.0: Connected living in a wearable world."

And Gartner research estimates that by 2018, 2 million employees will be required to wear health and fitness tracking devices as a condition of employment. In the future workplace, a long-haul trucker might be required to wear a device that can sense when they are too tired to drive. Sales clerks may wear wristbands that check store inventory without requiring them to leave the sales floor or the customer.

The pervasiveness of cloud: This Forbes roundup of the many cloud predictions, estimates, and forecasts offers sufficient reason to believe that cloud, in all its transformations, has been fully embraced by the enterprise. Cloud touches all areas of business, which means you can't pinpoint one top skill that will help IT professionals remain relevant. Cloud jobs tend to break down into those requiring specific cloud technology skills, those requiring skills in general cloud architecture, and those focused on managing migration, vendor choice, and capacity demand. It's important to evaluate what cloud skills will be needed tomorrow rather than the skills needed today.

The proliferation of data: One of the key problems with the vast amounts of data being created is getting those data sets to work together. As Internet-connected sensors and devices proliferate, the main obstacle will be devising systems that allow them to communicate. In a Q&A about how IoT will transform the workplace, Abbas Haider Ali, chief technology officer of xMatters, says, "In the next five to 10 years, I think we'll see that the rules-based and classical data analysis techniques to drive value out of this information will fail. They'll be replaced by narrow [artificial intelligence]. We'll see specialized learning systems in healthcare, manufacturing, and other domains that will ask questions of the data and environments faster than we can think of them, much less answer them."

Inside those specialized learning systems, IT professionals will be pushed to seamlessly drive decisions and actions based on data. Imagine if your fitness tracker could automatically text your doctor about your elevated pulse rate, which would then trigger a call from your healthcare provider to schedule a virtual visit with a nurse.

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The power of internal and external APIs: Since the early 2000s, businesses have opened up their application programming interfaces (APIs) to developers. Why? To encourage developers to design apps that will interact with their software. This move to openness has caused a boom in API development and interest. There are at least a dozen searchable API directories, giving developers access to several thousand APIs. As tech expands into IoT, robotics, and virtual reality, there will be a greater need for even more APIs. According to "The State of API 2016" report, released by SmartBear, 39 percent of survey respondents said integration is the top challenge and major obstacle in creating APIs. Businesses will require programmers and developers who understand how to connect with outside APIs and overcome the integration obstacle.

The collision of virtual reality and reality: To date, most virtual and augmented reality platforms have focused on entertainment. If you already have user experience (UX) and interface design skills, virtual reality applied to the workplace may be your next frontier. Goldman Sachs researcher Heather Bellini predicts that virtual and augmented reality will become an $80 billion market by 2025. To put that into perspective, that is roughly the size of today's desktop PC market. Bellini says that virtual and augmented reality is "increasingly impacting sectors that people touch every day. ...We think this technology has the potential to transform how we interact with almost every industry." It's easy to imagine that one day a mechanical engineer will put on a headset, virtually work through the fix of a broken machine, and then, through the same interface, instruct a robotic counterpart to execute in the real world the steps they just performed virtually.

The rise of the robots: Will robots replace workers or make them more productive? That debate rages on, but it hasn't slowed the growth of robots in the workplace. IDC reports that global spending on robotics and related services will grow to $135.4 billion in 2019. Manufacturing and the military have staked out a significant portion of this growth, but healthcare and warehouses have also made strides. The "Medical Robots Market by Product" report predicts that spending in the medical robots sector will reach $11.4 billion by 2020. From direct patient care (surgical robots) and indirect patient care (robots used to clean and disinfect hospital rooms) to nanorobots (swallowable robots that deliver chemotherapy to specific cancerous cells, for example), the possibilities for robotics in healthcare are endless.

Prepare for tomorrow: Technologies are being created faster than the expertise needed to use them effectively. As digital transformation takes hold, businesses will struggle to define and fill the new skill sets that will be required. As businesses adapt to the constant disruption created by technology, job seekers must do the same.

The workforce of tomorrow: Lessons for leaders

  • Wearables are set to expand beyond consumer devices. 
  • Everything is becoming even more connected, spurred along by APIs any developer can use.
  • Robots and automation are poised to change the way that work gets done.

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