Are you ready for the next big thing? The technologies known as the Internet of Things (IoT) barely existed a few years ago, but connected devices are now poised to boom. A recent study by Gartner predicted that 26 billion IoT units have been installed by the year 2020, generating $300 billion in revenue. That's just the beginning, though, as the IoT will also generate an additional $1.9 trillion in economic value, Gartner reports.
This rapid and massive growth offers both opportunities and challenges for high-tech industries, including people from a wide range of technical fields. It also presents huge new opportunities -- not to mention a few risks -- for the companies and industries that will be implementing these technologies.
Not Just Things -- Everything
Here's one thing you should know to start: "The Internet of Things is really the Internet of Everything," says Ron Hale, acting CEO of the IT industry association ISACA. "Everything will be connected to the network." Yes, even your Espresso maker may soon pack IoT functionality.
Of course a lot of devices already are connected, but as Diego Tamburini, a technology futurist with Autodesk, points out, "what's new with the Internet of Things is that the number and the type and the nature of devices that we're connecting to the Internet are skyrocketing. This is enabling scenarios that we hadn't even thought of before," he says. As it expands, IoT is going well beyond current connected devices such as computers, tablets and smartphones to incorporate everything from fitness devices to machines on the plant floor to fashion and just about anything else. "I don't know of an industry that is not taking advantage of connected devices," says Scott Hublou, co-founder of the home energy service company EcoFactor.
This growth, Hale says, will provide new ways for high-tech employees to put their skills to use in sensors, batteries, software and data science, to name just a few important areas of need in IoT. "This drives tremendous career opportunities not only for cybersecurity professionals but for engineers, coders, and architects who understand the potential risks and who can collaborate with others in the design of systems that not only deliver benefits but do so in a responsible manner considering threats to personal information protection and the compromise of systems."
It will also provide opportunities for the people in the industries IoT technologies will serve, as IoT implementation and value will come from an understanding of the business rules and applications in each field. "For example, you have to have people who are specialists in understanding the sensor requirements for the healthcare side," says Michael Daly, chief technology officer at Raytheon Cybersecurity & Special Missions.
This provides some of the biggest opportunities for companies who understand the unique business rules of their clients, says Jennifer Waldo, global head of human resources for GE Software, which has hired more than 500 people over the past two years and, as of this writing, has nearly 200 IoT job openings. "If you know the equipment and you know how it works and operates, you can provide extra value to customers with software." GE, in fact, has their own term for the IoT: the Industrial Internet.
The Many Aspects of Things
Unlike other many other fields of technology, the IoT relies upon a number of different players to become fully realized, says Tamburini. The first is the infrastructure vendors, such as Cisco, which develop the networking structure. Next are the companies that are manufacturing the IoT connected devices. After that there are the companies that develop applications to run on those devices, much in the same way that developers create apps for smartphones. Finally there are the big-data analysts who use the information generated by IoT to achieve a variety of results.
But it also goes well beyond that. Even developing IoT hardware requires a broad skill set and a multidisciplinary team. Tamburini describes it as akin to a triathlon. "Triathlon is not considered three sports," he says. "It's considered a single sport. With IoT, you're designing a system as a whole, not just parts and assemblies."
And that's just the starting point. Applying IoT means generating data, and that data requires protection. Cybersecurity will play an important role in this says Daly, who has previously commented that "the Internet of Everything means that everything is hack-able."
Once IoT systems have been designed and built, they must also be implemented. That can be extra challenging, Daly says, if a company buys from multiple suppliers. It also means that IoT devices could be installed by people who work on, say, HVAC systems, who would not have had to traditionally worry about things such as cybersecurity. "That makes it a complex environment," Daly says.
The hardest part about getting into IoT work is the fact that it is less of an industry in and of itself than an application of existing technologies. Other industries have specific conferences and news sources to keep people in the field up to date. That doesn't quite exist yet in the IoT space, which makes it harder to stay informed as IoT develops. "It's a different way of learning than the past, where you just had to subscribe to three magazines and attend a conference twice a year," Daly says. He gets his industry tips and information from the people he knows and by actively seeking out the latest news and developments in the field. He says he has to read broadly among multiple technologies and industry news sources in order to get the full IoT picture.
Tamburini says professionals working elsewhere can move into IoT, but it can be hard to figure out on your own. He says there need to be more classes and certificate courses to teach people what they need to know to focus their efforts and existing skills. To start, Daly recommends that everyone learn how to program software, even if they don't become experts. "Learn programming so you can understand how information is collected, authenticated, encrypted and stored," he suggests. "You'll be a better designer, you'll do better at dealing with the governance side of it, and you'll be better across the board."
Perhaps in part because colleges aren't exactly teaching IoT yet, Waldo says GE Software finds itself hiring people with a fair amount of other experience. She says the average person they hire has between eight and fifteen years of experience and has worked for both startups and larger companies. "They know what the startup world looks like and have the whole entrepreneurial spirit of getting things done things done while wearing multiple hats, but they also know what it's like to work in a big matrix company."
One interesting aspect GE has discovered about its hires is that many have experience working for companies that were acquired. "Being swallowed by the elephant can be a challenging experience," Waldo says. "If you can work through that, it gives you agility, both organizationally and as an employee, that we have found to be really useful."
Beyond that, Waldo says working in IoT requires people who understand the nature of change. "The speech I always give to folks is, think about the change and the impact and the transformation that you're going to go through as we get this right. You have to understand that change is hard. You've got to have that kind of intestinal fortitude to want to have all the cool technology and work on things that are important and be an evangelist for this kind of transformational journey."
What Comes Next
As with any new technology or industry, there are both risks and challenges.
One challenge is the very newness of the technology. "To take full advantage of these exciting new developments, tech executives must get together and create a common plan," says Ron Sege, chairman and SEO of Echelon Corp. Part of that, he says, will involve developing a common core architecture that will allow for a smooth transition from current networks to new IoT platforms.
Another challenge is that some of the technologies that will fully enable the IoT aren't quite ready. "For IoT to really hit the growth 'hockey stick' currently predicted, sensor and energy technologies need to be developed by engineers and programmers need to better manage and support heterogeneous data sets," says Angel Orrantia, business development director at SK Telecom Americas. Meanwhile, he says, "technology professionals need to migrate the current infrastructure to a more dedicated architecture that deals with these new applications."
Some experts see risks for the people who end up working in IoT. Frances Mann-Craik, chief marketing officer of the business infrastructure company Auconet, says many engineers will find themselves working on innovative applications while others may find themselves reduced to "gruntwork." He suggests that constant maintenance of massive sensor networks could lead to "drudgery and career stagnation" if there are no platforms to bring some semblance of control over the networks.
Despite any open questions and risks, the need and expected growth for the Internet of Things may trump all fears. As Hublou puts it, "The only risk is not moving in the field."
The Institute's Special Report on the Internet of Things