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Hybrid OT: A new role emerging within industrial IoT companies

In my conversations with industrial companies looking to start or accelerate their journey toward the industrial internet of things, I’ve begun to see a phenomenon among the ranks of industrial technologists that’s not all that different from Darwin’s theory of evolution. Adaptation is the key to this theory, something industrial technologists need to do well as their environment is changing around them.

In the past, there has been a clear divide between IT teams — that control the data center — and operational technology teams — which are responsible for the care and feeding of operational automation systems. These two distinct teams had different skill sets, backgrounds and priorities. Today, in order to bridge the gap that has traditionally separated the two, a new breed of what I like to call “hybrid OT” professionals is emerging. This is where IT and OT responsibilities and skillsets are converging, making the individual who can do both a valuable technologist.

What is causing this shift? There are two big things I see driving this change:

New responsibilities breed new roles — As more computing power and data collection have made their way to the edge of industrial networks, a new combination of skills is required to manage these assets (historically the domain of OT), giving “birth” to the IT/OT hybrid. We saw a similar shift occur with the rise of cloud computing: developers struggled to get IT to respond to their needs, so they turned instead to public cloud services for answers. As developers took this responsibility of securing the IT infrastructure needed to run their applications in clouds upon themselves, the role of DevOps was born.

A generation ready for 21st century challenges — Many OT professionals who have been in the industry a long time are now approaching retirement and a new generation is taking their place. This generation of younger, digital natives is not intimidated by technology — they were in fact raised on it. They see the potential of IIoT and will look to realize its potential as they push intelligence out to the edge and leverage data and analytics in new ways.

The most forward-looking industrial enterprises are the ones that see the value in hiring professionals that are just as comfortable working with servers as they are working with machine tools, packaging lines, pumps and valves. Enterprises actively recruiting these hybrid OT professionals are attracted to the skills they’re seeing that will be valuable in managing both IT and OT technologies. Whatever their background — IT, data science, industrial engineering — these individuals share a passion for the intersection of technology and industrial operations.

New expectations for the technology they use will also come along with the role. System availability has become an absolute necessity for business continuity and is something hybrid OT professionals will expect out of their systems and technology vendors. Similarly, these hybrid OT professionals see the value in the data produced at the edge and will lean on technology vendors to help make data protection a top priority for the enterprise.

When will we see this new breed emerge? The answer is that the evolution will happen soon — much more quickly than it occurs in the natural world. Over the next two to three years, I believe the industry will see a major influx of this hybrid breed.

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