Is IT a service industry, or is it “eating the world”?

In an earlier post I wondered if how high school classes in Information Technology(IT)/Computer Science(CS) are being taught is turning students off and, if so, is this why enrolment numbers are dropping. In the comments on that post Tony suggests some other reasons for this decline. Including the observation that IT courses in local schools (both Tony and I live in Queensland, Australia) are primarily seen to serve the needs of students who want to be IT professionals. The further suggestion is that since

IT is a service-based industry, there only needs to be 5%-10% of the population focused on it as a profession

Now I can agree somewhat with this perspective. It matches some of what I observe. It also reminds me of Nicholas Carr’s 2003 Harvard Business Review article titled IT doesn’t matter which included the following

The point is, however, that the technology’s potential for differentiating one company from the pack – its strategic potential – inexorably diminishes as it becomes accessible and affordable to all

Instead of being strategic, Carr sees IT becoming infrastructure somewhat like electricity etc.

The rise of the cloud seems to reinforce this perspective. Increasingly there is no strategic advantage for an institution having its own guru Systems Administrators running servers and managing networks. Instead they can outsource this to “the cloud” or more often service providers. For example, a number of Australian Universities have outsourced the hosting of their Learning Management Systems.

Combine this with the nerd image of IT, and you can see why more high school students aren’t taking classes in IT.

But what if software ate the world?

And then comes the recent article from Marc Andreessen on “Why software is eating the world”. In his own words

My own theory is that we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy

If true, this sort of shift suggests that having some IT, especially software, knowledge and capability could be a useful thing. The prediction is that industries with a significant physical component (e.g. oil and gas) the opportunity is there for existing companies. But in other industries, start-ups will have opportunities.

Andreessen argues that this shift is starting to happen now for much the same reason that Carr argued that IT didn’t matter anymore. i.e. the technology needed to fully harness software has become infrastructure, it’s become invisible. Huge numbers of people have smartphones and Internet access. The IT services industry and the cloud make it simple to develop a global software application.

Of course, one of the problems with this argument is confirmation bias, as put in this comment from the Slashdot post on the Andreessen article

An expert of [field of study] believes [field of study] will change the world. Also emphasizes that other people are not taking [field of study] seriously.

What does this mean for high school IT classes

One of the problems that Andreessen identifies is that

many people in the U.S. and around the world lack the education and skills required to participate in the great new companies coming out of the software revolution.

Give the dearth of enrolments in high school IPT in local schools and universities, I imagine that the same problem exists here in Australia. I believe this is also a major point that Rushkoff makes in his book “Program or be programmed”

So, obviously more people should enrol in the IT classes in high school.

No, I don’t think so. At least not as most stand at the moment.

This connects back to a point from my initial post. I believe that the current curriculum and teaching methods for these courses are generally not appropriate for the purpose of preparing people – beyond just the future IT professionals – for this world that software is eating.

The current curriculum appears aimed at providing the service providers. The folk who will keep the infrastructure going. What is needed is curriculum and teaching methods that will prepare the folk who are going to identify opportunities and transform industries. Or on a smaller scale, identify opportunities for how the IT infrastructure can be harnessed to improve their lives.

One thought on “Is IT a service industry, or is it “eating the world”?

  1. As it happens I’ll be looking more closely at the IPT curriculum over the coming weeks. The following quote is from a subject guide for IPT that is designed to help students and parents understand the course

    As a result, the study of this subject will contribute in a significant way to the general education of students, whether or not they intend proceeding to employment specific to information technology.

    So, IPT is intended, at least going by this claim to be useful to more than just the future service providers, but it appears that many students may not be getting this message.

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