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22 February 2011

Nightmare of the typing pool

By Andrew Clifford

Will the IT profession die out like the typing pool?

For those of you lucky enough not to be at least fortysomething, the typing pool was how businesses used to get things typed.

It worked like this. You would hand-write what you wanted, and send it in for typing. A day or so later you would get it back, typed up. You would scribble amendments on it, and send it back in. Eventually, when you were happy with it, you would distribute it in the internal post.

As a trainee, the typing pool was fearsome. They definitely enjoyed the power they had over juniors like me. They had a complete monopoly. Only they had the qualifications and skills to type, only they had specialised and expensive word processors, and only they could produce documents to company standards.

The typing pool died quickly. Younger workers like me had started using word processors at college, and, although we were not qualified as typists, and our typing was shaky, we could get by.

For a while, the typing pool still had a monopoly on decent printers and corporate standards. I remember writing on mainframe text editors, and sending paper printouts to the typing pool to be typed up "properly".

But this did not last long. PCs and laser printers made it easy for anyone to produce good quality documents, and email removed any vestiges of document standardisation. The typing pool was no more.

My nightmare is that something similar, but on a larger and more complicated scale, is going to happen to IT.

We preserve our position because only we have the qualifications and skills to build and run IT solutions. Only we have access to specialised and expensive software and hardware. Only we can enforce standards.

To an extent, the role of IT professionals is already diminished. Businesses are run on Excel spreadsheets. And with products like Microsoft Sharepoint, business users can build a lot of their IT solutions without the need for us awkward and expensive professionals.

But I can think of real examples of why IT as a professional will survive.

The first example is what has happened with typing. Although typing has disappeared as a profession, authoring in its many forms (copywriting, technical authoring, web authoring) still thrives. The mechanics of writing may be available to all, but writing anything complicated, or anything for publication, still requires a specialist.

The second example is that end-user IT becomes infeasible when it gets too large. I know an IT professional with decades of experience in large databases who has been brought in to support a business critical spreadsheet that has become just too complicated to manage.

This calms my nightmare. IT will remain as a profession. It will not survive because only we have the basic skills, because technologies are too hard, because standards are complicated or difficult, or because we use certification and qualification to retain a monopoly. There is a value to removing costly professionals when you do not need them, and we should not try to stop this happening. What will keep the profession going is our experience and skill in larger, more complicated and specialised solutions, which will always remain outside the scope of anyone other than a professional.

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