Tech-Driven: How Web Services Could Change IT Jobs

Moving from legacy systems will be slow, but vendors know that companies will need help making the change
While trends such as outsourcing and offshore development grab attention, Web services might also dramatically change the nature of the IT job.

At UNC Health Care, a nonprofit hospital and medical-care network affiliated with the University of North Carolina, sweeping IT changes have been in the works since CIO JP Kichak launched a Web-services initiative about 18 months ago using IBM WebSphere technology. The project is complete for the clinical side of the business, which includes processing medical forms, but it's still in progress on the administrative end, which includes human-resources processes, financial reporting, and payroll. The goal is to link into central portals all the forms and tasks in each part of the business. And that will change how Kichak's IT organization works.

Kichak describes the traditional process of installing and integrating an application in three steps: analyzing the connecting points between the new app and any apps it needs to integrate with; writing the code needed to connect them; and putting the connections together. Kichak expects staffers to bypass the first two steps when they integrate using Web services.

For example, you can install Microsoft Outlook, and then connect it to WebSphere so it will be compatible with back-end systems and able to interact with other applications. "So instead of Java programmers doing analysis, development, and implementation, they'll just do implementation," he says. That will save time and make the IT pro what Kichak describes as "a facilitator and tweaker in piecing the puzzles together," rather than a person who writes extensive adaptive code and rewires apps to work with existing infrastructure.

Another type of analysis will replace the time spent understanding application integration. Because of the broad Web-services architecture and the interoperational nature of applications, a mistake on one app could hurt many others, Kichak says. Before, programmers could look just at the point of connection on a specific project. "You can mess up a lot more things with Web services," he says. Staffers "have to understand outside their box, and you have to give them an overall architectural view of what you push together, so they know before they push here on that, it's going to pull out over there."

Web services won't change careers overnight, as any transition from legacy systems will be a long, slow process. But vendors of Web-services-centric products know companies will need help in the change. For example, IBM has created a program it calls SpeedStart, training schools designed to give developers the knowledge and skills to bridge the gap between old and new architectures.

Garry Hilts, a systems analyst at Con-Way Transportation Services Inc., a trucking and logistics company, is on the programming end of a Web-services deployment. The changes he sees are very concrete. He has experienced the evolution from writing business logic and applications for the mainframe to a more-distributed architecture and Web-based applications. It's meant adopting new skills --such as learning Java and object-oriented design--and largely leaving behind procedural programming for coding on the mainframe.

There's also been a great emphasis on understanding the people using the systems and the jobs they do. "Our company is transportation, so we send our developers to Trucking 101," Hilts says. All Con-Way employees spend time in other lines of business, from riding with truck drivers to operating forklifts.

Integration will always be tough, but the economics of big projects will also change thanks to technologies such as Web services and RosettaNet, says Greg Clark, president and CEO of E2Open LLC, which provides a collaboration platform for the electronics industry. "The consultants are there, but they're not going to be able to charge for all the bodies doing proprietary and complex system gluing," he says.

Clark also expects fewer specialities built around programming languages. "When a lot of people were programming different languages, there was differentiation between who knew what language," Clark says. Even now, Java programmers can't demand the salaries they could a few years ago. "The jobs are still there, but they aren't as specialized and can't command as much pay," he says.

UNC Health Care's Kichak doesn't believe specialization will fade so quickly. But he does see changes afoot. "We used to have SQL programming done by database analysts," he says. "Now with the tools that are coming out in Java development environments, we're seeing things like stored procedures that a Java app person who understands SQL could do."

Hilts is more skeptical of such commoditization theories. Con-Way may be getting more plug-and-play with the applications it builds, but there will always be new integration issues. "There's a gap between theory and reality," Hilts says. "Though that gap is getting smaller, it's still there."

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