Future Uncertain-Es

Marleen McDaniel, CEO of Women.com Networks, is reported to have said that the Internetis beginning to permeate every fiber of daily life. "We will soon do our groceryshopping by connecting to a wireless device attached to the refrigerator."

Well, before we connect with a cold one from the e-fridge and get virtually comfortablein our e-houses, let's pause to talk amongst ourselves for a moment. By last count, E-Bay,recently as notorious for service outages as online auctioning, has disappointed itscustomers big time -- 11 times in the past several months. I had to chuckle back on June11th as the E-Bay VP of Marketing was trying to explain to CNBC's Maria Bartiromo whyE-Bay was down for several hours: "It's a problem with our Sun Solaris server. But weexpect to be back in 30 minutes." About 30 days later, E-Bay's servers are still insick bay.

So, aren't we past permeating? About 150 million people worldwide now use the Internet.Traffic on the Internet is doubling every 100 days -- that's more than a sextupling by theend of this year. We're moving much more rapidly to "Been there. Done that."

But while my fridge is taking inventory, I've presumably got more time to think aboutthe e-wonderful e-world of "pervasive computing" as IBM refers to it, or thee-volving vision of HP's E-Services. And that brings me to a fundamental question: Who isgoing to make this e-stuff work? E-gads!

The answer is worrisome, particularly in light of the Department of Commerce's Officeof Technology Policy (OTP) report entitled, The Digital Workforce: Building InfotechSkills At the Speed of Information. Published this past June, the study provides anexhaustive and sobering examination of "the IT worker challenge." Or in otherwords, who is going to make this e-stuff work?

As the OTP report points out, IT contributed to more than a third of real U.S. economicgrowth between 1995 and 1997. Pat yourselves on the back. However, while we may haveinvested prodigious sums in IT architectures and Internet IPOs, we aren't investing nearlyas much time, energy or money on raising the necessary intellectual capital that we'regoing to sorely need to keep the e-services utopia from turning dysfunctional, like E-Bayfor instance. "Getting -- and keeping -- the right person, with the rightskills at the right time requires extraordinary efforts and innovative practices,"concludes the OTP report.

But while you can chalk that up to the realities of 21st century capitalism, whatworries me at night is the student population yet to enter this soon-to-be well-connectedutopia. "While industry needs the skills often produced in short-term intensiveskills training programs, such programs may not provide enough emphasis on the underlyingknowledge and problem-solving needed for a rapidly changing business and technologicalenvironment. If workers do not possess the underlying knowledge and skills, their specialtechnical skills will become outdated."

That's why grades K through 12 are the key. But only 51% of public school classroomshave Internet access. As one teacher in my neighborhood confided to me, "While theclassrooms may have access to the Internet, not all the computers in a classroom areconnected or even functional." Then there's the problem of non-computer literateteachers. The report correctly states the need for not only computer literate (reasonablyskilled with general-purpose business apps) teachers; but also the need for teachers andstudents to become IT-literate (at least familiar with hardware and software platforms andinfrastructures).

The need for highly-skilled and trained IT workers should be self-evident to thereaders of this magazine. What are we going to do about it, that is what I'd like to know.