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Take your pick: Business processes or Bangalore

Business processes matter. And two of today’s biggest trends, offshoring and Service-Oriented Architectures (SOAs), will soon make them matter even more to software professionals. My guess is that over the next few years, many people working in IT will face a simple choice. One option is to get involved with business processes in a much more explicit way. The other? Pack your bags and move to Bangalore, India, because that is where your job is going to go.

The trend toward sending jobs to cheaper places like India hit without much warning. In fact, the 1990s was a great time to be a geek. Purely technical people were in high demand, commanding high salaries as developers, system administrators and even Web designers. It was easy to imagine a long-term career path that was focused entirely on technology.

Those days are gone. It has become obvious that purely technical jobs are the easiest to send offshore. While I don’t believe that every software position will wind up in India, it is clear that well-educated, hard-working and cheap developers in cities like Bangalore will do more and more of the most technical work. American software professionals can decry this trend as much as they like, but it’s not going to change. We don’t have a choice: We must adapt to this new world.

If purely technical jobs are the easiest to move offshore, which ones are left? What kinds of information technology skills are likely to remain in demand here in the U.S.? One answer is that while moving the most technical work to other countries can make sense, fundamental business processes are harder to send overseas. Accordingly, technology jobs with the safest-looking futures are likely to be those most closely bound to business processes.

A focus on business processes also fits well with the Service-Oriented Architectures that most organizations are moving toward. Once applications expose their services in well-defined ways, it makes sense to focus on implementing the business processes that make use of these services. In line with this, a field known as business process management (BPM) has appeared. Although the category is not especially well-defined at the moment, BPM products generally include technologies such as graphical tools for defining business processes, business activity monitoring (BAM) for keeping track of what is happening inside a running business process, specialized engines for defining business rules and more.

Let me say it again: Business processes matter. For both career planning and technical reasons, each of us can benefit from understanding our organization’s business processes and perhaps moving our skill set in that direction. We can also benefit from understanding the new wave of BPM products that vendors are rolling out. In the .NET world, the most important technology to understand is BizTalk Server. If you’re like me, you have tended to shove BizTalk into a corner labeled “integration,” and have never looked at it again. I never cared much about this Microsoft product or its competitors because all of them seemed to be focused on a specialized and messy area in which I had no interest.

Today, however, the situation has changed. The truth is that application integration, whether inside or between enterprises, is actually just a way to implement business processes. While integration drove the initial adoption of Microsoft’s BizTalk Server and similar products, today’s broader move toward BPM brings these products much more into the mainstream. In BizTalk Server 2004, Microsoft has added a number of business process management features to the product, including BAM and a business rules engine. Equally important, this new version has been completely rewritten to run on top of the .NET Framework. Business processes are still defined graphically in BizTalk, as they always have been, using a mechanism called orchestrations.

In the version released this year, however, these orchestrations are compiled into standard .NET assemblies. Rather than providing its own unique execution environment for business processes, BizTalk Server 2004 makes orchestrations just another way to create an assembly. This tight connection with .NET means that especially for Microsoft-oriented organizations, BizTalk Server is all but certain to be on the short list of BPM products.

I’ve been to Bangalore, and it’s an impressive place in many ways. But living in India will likely be challenging for most native-born Americans, and so following a purely technical job to the other side of the world probably isn’t the best option. While business processes might veer away from pure technology, they are nonetheless interesting in their own right.

Anybody who is planning a long-term career in IT should begin giving some attention to this area. It might one day be the only thing anyone is willing to pay you for.

About the Author

David Chappell is principal at Chappell & Associates, an education and consulting firm focused on enterprise software technologies. He can be reached via E-mail at david@davidchappell.com.

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