This feature first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
If the major theme of the last 20 years has been how information technology dramatically changed the world, then the year 2020 was when IT itself had to adapt, in order to serve a pandemic-stricken planet.
The COVID outbreak forced businesses, schools, healthcare providers, and governments to revisit their technology solutions to support a populace hampered by travel restrictions and disease control measures. Implementing these changes has taught the IT industry some critical lessons about what's required of technology during a global crisis.
What have we learned from coping with COVID? Let's take a look at some of the curveballs that came shooting at the IT industry this year and assess how they were handled. What IT norms were disrupted by the pandemic, and what COVID-related challenges is the IT industry likely to face in 2021?
COVID-19 reshuffles the deck
Arguably the biggest workplace technology issue to arise in 2020 was the immediate and pressing need to enable and advance the process of telecommuting. The mere thought of permitting people to work from home, to say nothing of helping them do it, is a contentious issue that has been hotly debated for years.
Spoiler alert: Work-from-home solutions? They work.
The COVID-19 outbreak forced the hand of nearly every organization that had previously refused to integrate WFH solutions into their enterprise. The persistent (and unfounded) prejudices against remote work were effectively discredited in 2020, as home-based information workers across multiple industries proved they can be effective, high-functioning, and fully engaged in their work ... without being confined to a cubicle.
The sudden necessity of telecommuting, however, required IT departments to learn a tough lesson: Information security needs to be balanced with what WFH employees need access to in order to do their jobs.
The relationship between infosec experts and remote workers has always been contentious. Remote workers typically need access to the same systems and resources available to workers in the office.
This conflicts with IT security staff, who are loathe to allow any type of external access to internal systems. Infosec insiders will joke that a perfectly secure network is one that no one can access — including employees (and especially the boss).
In 2020, IT security pros had to figure out how to best adapt existing policies and setups to enable large numbers of employees to work from home. For years, many telecommuters had to work with spotty, slow VPN connections that refused to provide access to applications and resources needed to do their jobs. That scenario is no longer an acceptable solution for today's remote workers.
Another lesson for employers dealing with a growing WFH workforce is that IT equipment is not 'one size fits all.' A home-based employee must often work through a number of IT-related challenges: finding an ergonomic workspace in their residence; configuring a wireless network that can provide quality-of-service (QoS) priority to a work computer; dealing with the limitations of a typical consumer-level print device.
Employers who insisted on a WFH equipment strategy of 'here's your business laptop with a power brick' were likely setting up their workers to fail. Every information worker has an ideal tech gear solution for their specific job role.
IT departments learned that giving WFH workers more options for their home office setup — multiple monitors, more capable all-in-one print devices, and higher-spec laptops for job roles requiring the extra horsepower, for example — made employees more likely to excel in their home environments.
2020 was also the year when organizations that hadn't figured out video conferencing had to up their game. Video calls, a major component of WFH solutions, came into their own as a must-have technology. While video conferencing has been around for years, organizations were compelled this year to fully adopt the format for both internal communications and (in some cases) customer relationship programs.
An event that shakes up the status quo and forcibly causes change to occur is referred to as a disruptor. For example, the iPhone's release in 2007 was an IT industry disruptor that forced other mobile phone vendors to radically change their approach to product development.
The COVID outbreak has disrupted practically every human-operated system we have, and the IT industry is no exception. The pandemic's harshest disruption of the IT industry was the widespread financial impact from the multitude of IT projects either put on hold indefinitely or cancelled outright.
Each IT project scrapped in 2020 had a negative effect on a broad spectrum of IT workers: hardware vendors, information analysts, network technicians, software developers, and many other tech pros all took a financial hit.
The postponement and cancellation of IT project work contributed directly to the IT industry's overall unemployment issue, which reached staggering levels as the COVID epidemic gained traction both in the United States and abroad.
In May 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the IT sector had lost 250,000 jobs in the United States in just one month. One industry expert put this number into a grim context, explaining that the colossal number 'pretty much wipes out total job gains in the tech industry since the Great Recession of 2008- 2009.'
Thankfully, the IT industry made something of a comeback over the second half of 2020. A CompTIA press release from November reported an unemployment rate in the United States of 2.8 percent for all IT professions, far lower than the national unemployment rate of 6.9 percent.
What about IT education and certification? How were these industry activities disrupted by COVID? While IT education and certification were impacted by the global pandemic, these activities proved to be less volatile than other education channels. This can be attributed to distance learning and online proctored exams already making significant inroads into IT education before the COVID outbreak occurred.
While K-12 and secondary schools struggled to put capable distance learning solutions in place, many technology schools and training centers simply needed to upscale their existing systems for the larger number of students unable or unwilling to attend traditional instructor-led classroom training.
No discussion of IT industry disruption in 2020 would be complete without mentioning the ongoing Big Tech antitrust investigations being conducted in the United States, the European Union, and other parts of the world. The COVID outbreak effectively lowered the priority of these antitrust investigations in early 2020, giving Big Tech a break from potential harangues (and more time to harden their legal defenses).
In spite of the pandemic, however, legal proceedings are beginning to move forward again. The U.S. Department of Justice launched its official antitrust suit against Google in October, while the European Union moved forward with its charges against Amazon in November. These suits will ultimately reveal exactly how willing and determined governments are to reduce the monopoly power of Big Tech.
Or perhaps these cases will echo previous actions where monetary fines — insignificant penalties for the world's wealthiest corporations like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon — will be levied, a clear indication of waning political resolve for this issue.
What to expect in 2021?
What's in store for the IT industry in 2021? This is a compelling question involving a global pandemic that is still largely unchecked in the United States, and an industry that is famous for its unpredictability. The most recent news of promising COVID vaccine candidates is providing a ray of hope for a troubled world, but there is still a great deal that we don't know about the upcoming year.
First and foremost, the IT industry must maintain its flexibility in 2021. There are a series of 'new normal' periods coming up, and information technology needs to continue to adapt to serve the changing requirements of each phase of recovery from the pandemic.
IT pros should expect cloud-based solutions to continue to dominate the industry. The 'Everything-as-a-Service' (XaaS) paradigm should continue to gain traction with organizations that choose to eschew owning and managing their own IT infrastructure. Likewise, virtualization will keep playing an important role — virtual machines, virtual networks, and virtual storage are technologies positioned to grow in importance over the next twelve months.
But perhaps the IT industry's biggest challenge in 2021 will be the introduction of new government regulation stemming from the upcoming antitrust trials. Such regulation could potentially have a huge impact on the everyday use of search, e-commerce, and social media. In the United States, much could depend on the priorities of the incoming Joe Biden administration taking over the White House in January 2021.
The pandemic will continue to dominate the nation's attention in the upcoming year, but a growing clamor against the tech industry's 800-pound gorillas and the uncontested power they wield could become a call-to-action that will be difficult for politicians to ignore.
So long 2020 — here's to 2021!
We are in one of the most challenging periods of modern human history. While 2020 isn't likely to win anyone's 'Best Year Ever' award, it's worth noting that technology played a crucial role in keeping people safe in the workplace and connected to each other when in-person visits became untenable.
There is much that needs to be done by the IT industry in 2021. For example, WFH is here to stay, and organizations will want solutions in place to make home-based employees just as effective and engaged as they were in the office. In this same vein, IT security pros will need to determine how to enable WFH solutions while keeping the enterprise safe from hackers.
Although 2021 remains something of a cypher to predict, there are positive signs that the IT industry will continue to recover — and continue to enable IT professionals looking forward to playing a role in helping nations around the world recoup their health and prosperity.