For Kevin Poulter, application technology manager at British American Tobacco (BAT), implementing a service-oriented architecture (SOA) at the company has been a steep – but satisfying – learning curve. With many of the key components of the new architecture now in place, however, he faces a further challenge: assembling a team with the appropriate skills to take the SOA forward.
“The difficulty is that we can’t approach recruitment from a purely programmatic point of view,” he says. “We must also approach it from an architectural and business perspective.” Getting people that have the right blend of programming skills and business process insight,
he says, is no easy task.
Like BAT, many organisations will increasingly face new and fundamentally different skills requirements as a result of adopting the SOA concept.
Take, for example, Java programming skills. At present, these are much in demand – in fact, many IT market analysts point to a worldwide Java skills shortage. As a result, the cost of hiring a Java programmer remains at a premium.
That ‘skills gap’ has prompted companies such as IBM and BEA Systems, for example, to launch rapid application development (RAD) tools that claim to enable non-technical people to build and deploy Java applications.
But in a few years, the software development burden is likely to ease off considerably, say analysts. The reason is clear: one of the major attractions of the SOA is the way that it enables organisations to re-use software components in different applications. Thus, a single piece of business logic – for example, a component that contains the instruction ‘Update address’ – only needs to be written once and can then be incorporated into any number of discrete business process workflows.
“When you have a plug-and-play software architecture you don’t really need much programming at all,” says Rob Hailstone, an analyst at IT market research company IDC. Few companies, he predicts, will write their own software, preferring instead to buy components from specialist third-party development houses and then pulling them all together within the SOA.
However, key IT staff will need to understand how different components can be re-used or reversioned, says Guy Lidbitter, UK vice president of systems integration at IT services company Atos Origin. “A key skill becomes the ability to design new solutions or amend existing ones based on a set of pre-existing services in order to meet ever-changing business needs.”
Other IT skills will also come to the fore, replacing application development as a priority, says Liz Barnett, an analyst at IT industry research company Forrester Research. These will include application security, business process modelling and developing integration interfaces.
In particular, IT staff will need to develop tools and methodologies for managing web services. BAT, for example, is working on a service registry that will enable the IT team to see at a glance what components are being used, how they are being used and how many versions of each component exists.
IT staff will also need to develop a deeper understanding of how the effective running – or not – of key business processes relates to the IT environment that underpins them. An SOA, says IDC’s Rob Hailstone must provide “a direct linkage between business activities and policies and the IT implementation of these. The purpose of this technology must be readily understood and justified at the business level.”
These changes will mean that IT teams are under considerable pressure for the next few years, says Rob Hailstone of IDC. Immature standards, he adds, can only exacerbate their problems. “There are more and more layers and [the SOA] looks very complex,” he says. “What we need to do as an industry is to ensure the standards are completely transparent so people using the products don’t have to worry about interoperability. But it will be a couple of years before life gets measurably simpler.”
For many organisations, then, the option to outsource the development of some services to third-party specialists will be an attractive one.
“Low-value services can be farmed out to people with low overheads, who do that and nothing else,” says Jon Collins, an analyst at Quocirca. “But when you have high-value services and you need a close relationship with the user interface design, those are the last things that should be outsourced,” he says.
Even the largest companies will face such problems. Automotive giant DaimlerChrysler, for example, is progressing towards the SOA, but according to Hans-Jürgen Gross, manager of methods, technologies and services at the company, there are some notable gaps in his team that make building the SOA difficult.
“Maybe we will hire people with more experience but we also want to have internal people that have the right skills,” says Gross. “It’s an expensive exercise but if we have no internal knowledge we are dependent on external vendors – which is not right.”
Finding the correct balance between in-house and external skills – not to mention developing new skills in-house – will be difficult. But if the claims made for the SOA are to be believed, new efficiencies will more than justify them.