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The future of IT

Prediction 1: Programming is the new literacy

 You're a second-class citizen if you don't know how to read and write today, and in twenty or thirty years the same will be true for people who don't have basic computer programming skills. Those who don't understand--at the very least--the concepts of order-of-execution, variables, data structures and recursion will be as socially and economically disadvantaged as the illiterate are now. 

 There was a time when literacy and basic arithmetic were skills reserved only to intellectuals and monks. Today our monks are programmers who know how to wield magic and illuminate scrolls of code. If you don't understand what an array is today, or how to loop over it, then you'd better learn or you'll be screwed tomorrow. The reasons unfold below.

Prediction 2: Bye-bye PHB

 Seventy years ago the word "computer" referred to a human being who sat, surrounded by her comrades, in a vast echoing hall and did nothing more than basic arithmetic all day long. It took about a decade for the word to change its meaning to 'an electronic tool that accesses and manipulates data'. To know the future of IT one must realize that "manager" is a word that will undergo exactly the same transformation. Like how most of the tasks of a secretary have been automated to the point of eliminating the position in many offices, many of the basic daily tasks of a manager can be automated, are already being automated, and in the hands of a computer (the electronic kind) can be better in both speed and consequence.

 Automating the position of computer did more than give the accounting department of large firms better numbers sooner, it also made it possible to render a movie like WALL-E or Toy Story, made it possible to predict the destination of a bullet before it left the barrel, and to create other kinds of communication. If we finish automating the position of manager we'll also discover new applications that are difficult to imagine today. How different? Consider:
  • The elimination of The Dreamliner Problem: the production of the 787 Boeing Dreamliner brought to light the problems of outsourcing because the contractors (and their sub-contractors) made parts that didn't fit, rendering entire batches of parts useless, delaying completion of the airplane, and requiring more managerial overhead to get them made right.
  • Self-assembling companies: hire-and-fire can become completely passive, making it easier and faster to grow when the economy is doing well, shrink when the economy is doing badly, and gradually improve productivity all the while.
  • Companies with zero liabilities: it may become possible to run companies with no net moral or financial liabilities, where everything is automatically balanced. 

Prediction 3: Languages determine growth

 IT and Business Development should be the same department; that programmers and technicians should learn something about business and marketing, and that business developers should learn something about programming and computer networking, with the goal of working together as seamlessly as specialized doctors in an ER or chefs in a kitchen.

 That's because software creates business opportunities. It's also because traditional user interfaces--the point-n-click kind--is an overhead that your competition will soon subvert in favor of very high-level languages. A new line of code can now be a new line of revenue, quite literally, as programming languages evolve to model and create products and services as first-class entities. This is not like COBOL, or Java or C++--in fact most of them won't even be Turing Equivalent--this is like R and its logical successors. Your programmers will extend the language that you use to invent the business with, and the expressiveness of that language--in Sapir-Whorf fashion--will determine the kinds of businesses you can conceive of. 

 Right now IT is constrained by what the business asks it to do. In the future, IT will tell the business what the business could do. And you will not want to be constrained by moving and clicking rectangles on the screen with a mouse, you will want to be speaking to the computer with the same directness a programmer does.

Prediction 4: The employer becomes the employee

 The point of a company is to reduce transaction costs, because delegation of labor and responsibility liberates the motivated class to concentrate on what they do best. Your competitor is hamstrung if he must do the accounting and assembly and customer service all by himself, and there's still no better arrangement than the corporation to bring together all the capital and human resources to deliver the product in a sufficient quantity at the market's price.

 But labor comes with high transaction costs, too, and in the past we solved this by dividing companies into departments that abstract-away the details to make them manageable. These departments act like companies with a budget, costs and a service. They were also made possible by technologies that improved with the intercom, the telephone, then email, spreadsheets and Powerpoint. The cost of collaboration got cheaper, but the overhead stayed the same, and so they also began balkanizing into the form of contractors and vendors. 

 And the law was following them, behaving like software by enabling new modes and opportunities with each feature. First the W-2, then the 1099, then the 401K and the IRA with rollovers. And then COBRA. And then PPACA. They came in and the "company man" went out, no longer expecting to be hired for life and cared-for to the grave by the same firm.

 Now Jet Blue's reservation department is staffed entirely by people who work at home, thanks to VOIP, and saves the airliner a monumental sum of money by removing the cost of office space and turnover. It makes profit much larger, but it also makes the company much smaller.

 With the detachment of place comes the weakening of affiliation. For now these people work only for one firm, but in the future they may find themselves working for hundreds in any given month. Changes in IT will make it easier for good employees to choose their employers, and this is already the case in some creative fields where desirable programmers, engineers and designers have their pick from the job market. But it will encroach onto other fields, and those who are especially competent at anything will consider it natural to pick their employer each morning, every morning, working remotely or on-site. Competition for jobs will turn into competition to be the job.

Prediction 5: Companies become disposable

 Add up the above and you get virtual businesses that don't have a CEO, a board of directors, employees or owners. They take the form of business models defined in code and acted on by anyone who can sign a contract or satisfy its interface. Today the equivalent is a brand, which captures an aesthetic, principles and vision, yet is tied to one company at a time. But what could turn a brand into a democracy is anything that can identify something as being consistent with the brand. If there was a language that could SELECT from the world WHERE its qualities match the brand's, then you can enable a new class of brand that's defined by what it is, not by who makes it. Imagine if "Google" actually was defined as "all those who do no evil". Our concepts of trademark ownership would have to change radically in such a future.

 The incentive that'll bring these changes is not just to reduce the transaction costs to zero, but to reduce the cost of starting a whole new company to zero. According to the Berne Convention, a work is copyrighted the moment its created, without any further administrative overhead. The same shall happen to entire businesses, when everything from customer support, warrantee service and manufacturing can be provided by vendors on a billed-by-use basis. If you can create a brand and a company by just defining it, then why not define thousands? Why not make natural selection--on a massive scale--part of your strategy?

 In the future, both IT and labor will be metered utilities with zero setup costs. In the future, the biggest company in the world may be nothing more than an XML file.