Despite being a topic that I've discussed extensively at work, over the last 12 months I've made no less than 4 attempts at organising my thoughts coherently into a blog entry. I hope that I've finally got it.
In my mind System Administration falls under 2 general families; Enterprise and Jack of All Trades. To me enterprise administrators manage large systems, and are generally focused on their specific trade - be it systems or network. I cover everything else as Jack of All Trades. This sort of role is either in a smaller outsourced IT house, or in a smaller business with less than 5 IT employees. Historically I'm a Jack of All Trades, and it's this line of work that I believe will become under threat over the next 10 years.
From what I've seen, in the UK, many people are becoming more IT literate. At the same time a lot of small business software is becoming more plug n’ play. Microsoft's SBS 2011 Essentials offering is such an example - you don't need to assign it static addresses, muck about with DHCP or really know what an Active Directory is. For a direct service it's plug n’ play and completely wizard-ified. Mail is integrated with Office 365, Microsoft's cloud based email offering.
And that's not a bad thing. After all, IT is there to help you work. That's the point of it.
You can take it a stage further. For the market that SBS 2011 Essentials is aimed at, you can argue “who needs a server at all?". Is it acceptable to just drop in a NAS on the end of a home router? For many small businesses the answer is that it'll do.
The thing is that almost anyone can do this.
All companies grow and shrink according to their own ecosystem, and sometimes at completely unpredictable rates. For a business being looked after by the guy/girl that knows computers the time may come that it'll turn out there's 16 NAS’ spread around a couple of offices, at least a few copies of each document, no real backups (because RAID is good enough right?!) and there are people putting up with what's been setup.
Until the next person comes along who knows a little bit about IT and starts setting up cloud storage for one particular office. The people in that office love their local expert, he/she even managed to get the company to pay for their cloud storage. The issue is though that the company didn't actually pay much attention to this new outgoing or what it meant.
Given enough time and the sprawl will become unmanageable. The company just won't see the danger of what may be occurring - they may be risking legal issues, increased likelihood of data theft and so forth.
During all this time occasionally a professional geek may be called in to help fix the odd computer, or laptop, but they'll never see the whole picture.
One, I don't see, or much more likely I don't want to see, where this ends. I've been right about most predictions I've made at work over the last 5 years. I fear that if you want to be a System Administrator then you need to work for a larger enterprise or a cloud services provider. The problem with cloud services is that they're done on such a massive scale, with commodity hardware that the number of System Administrators required is much, much lower than it would've been previously.
Assuming everything eventually goes to the cloud there are 2 problems in of itself. One is that work will dry up for those in the industry who don't already have the experience with larger scale, automated systems. The second is the number of people who go into System Administration will likely fall.
Two, I worry about the future of many small companies who start off with perfectly reasonable solutions that don't scale with the company to suit their real needs. The issue here is sadly the people who aren't professionally tasked, or have the necessary experience, with looking after computer systems.
So how should a small outsourced IT support shop deal with this issue? In my mind there are two ways. One is to shift into providing a cloud service. Realistically that's unlikely - it's a completely difference skill set. The second option is to continue doing what you're doing. You should already be making a relationship with your customers to help steer their IT to match their business needs. You should also forge as many relationships with the people who will eventually become these ad-hoc IT workers. Ultimately you should also focus on becoming a broker of cloud services on the side - you won't reach everyone and you can use this to create new relationships.
Incidentally you should really search Google images for “consumerisation of IT”. It's hilarious.