I was listening to a podcast today that was discussing a subject we’ve heard about many times recently and that’s the move from being IT specialists to generalists. Hardware products like EMC’s VNX are making this transition easier for the storage community and no doubt many people think this is a good thing. Whilst I believe we’ll see more of it happen, I’m not convinced it is always a move in the right direction.
The idea of the Division of Labour has served us well since the start of the industrial revolution and it isn’t a new concept. The premise is simple; specialise in a subject or profession and as a consequence become efficient at it. Trade or work with other specialists and the level of output is greater than the individual attempting to cover everything themselves. This has pretty much been the case since the beginning of IT. There are Network Guys (no need to say more about them), Server Admins, Storage Admins, DBAs, Operations Support teams, Project Managers, Developers and so on. Each of these areas could exist separately and “do their own thing” and standards would let things work together. OK there would be the occasional interaction, mostly to blame each other for bad performance (Network and Storage guys) or to stake a claim over territory (Network and Storage Guys), or perhaps to explain how things work (Storage to Server guys).
Virtualisation has changed this view of the world by making things more inter-dependent than before and it’s true to say that each area needs a better understanding of the issues of the others. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to do each other’s jobs. In fact as things become more complex, specialisation will be even more important. I would speculate that many Virtualisation Guys out there already specialise in only VMware or Hyper-V simply because there’s a market to do so. Most Storage Administrators don’t know everything about every storage product, because there’s not enough time in the day to learn it or sites that enable you to keep all your skills current, so they tend to specialise in EMC, HDS, IBM or perhaps HP equipment.
So here’s my proposal; for SMB/SMEs, let’s rejoice in the Generalist who by necessity has to understand and manage everything. For those larger organisations, take a leaf out of the medical or armed forces book, where specialisation and hierarchy already work well. Amend your practices a little too:
- Talk to each other more. Both formally and informally. One of the biggest issues we have is communication. As technology becomes more complex then we can’t understand it all. We need to specialise but at the same time we need to understand the implications of each part of IT on each other.
- Let’s have more “apprentices”. I think the idea of entering IT and ‘starting at the bottom” is fading away. I learned my IT knowledge by starting as a graduate trainee on a Helpdesk. Although it wasn’t my first choice, I did learn about all aspects of the business and it provided me the ability to see which area I would want specialise in.
- Employ more infrastructure architects. We need people who can understand the 30,000 feet view of the IT organisation; not generalists and not specialists at the configuration and deploy level, but those people who understand everything and how the pieces interact. This is different from the generalist, who has to do all of those jobs.
By having people who are guiding and directing, organisations can develop an overall IT strategy. These individuals need to be strong in personality and vision as they will need to make each part of an organisation work in harmony.
Generalists are good – let’s use them appropriately!