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Rise of The IT Generalist – A Bad Idea?

Rise of The IT Generalist – A Bad Idea?

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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!

About Chris M Evans

Chris M Evans has worked in the technology industry since 1987, starting as a systems programmer on the IBM mainframe platform, while retaining an interest in storage. After working abroad, he co-founded an Internet-based music distribution company during the .com era, returning to consultancy in the new millennium. In 2009 Chris co-founded Langton Blue Ltd (www.langtonblue.com), a boutique consultancy firm focused on delivering business benefit through efficient technology deployments. Chris writes a popular blog at http://blog.architecting.it, attends many conferences and invitation-only events and can be found providing regular industry contributions through Twitter (@chrismevans) and other social media outlets.
  • Rob

    > Rise of The IT Generalist – A Bad Idea?

    yes, but it is the way of the world. Too many
    orgnaizations pile on because they don’t have
    the head count. I know someone that has taken
    in the last 6 months, cisco, enterprise backup twice, vmware training. Plus day to day app support, server
    support. He may end up being good at 1, 2 of them
    and yet responsible for all of them. I don’t know
    what the management theory is, they have tons of
    money. He’ll be gone in a year or two. He is totally fried.

    All this training , you end up with someone that is
    6 miles wide and an inch deep – in many cases. Of
    course the conultancies have these folks , but the
    commmon shops? They leave for the consultancies if
    they are that good, the others are left to flounder.

    • http://www.brookend.com Chris Evans

      Rob

      I agree it’s the current state of things, but all this short term focus will ultimately lead to long term failure. I see many organisations (including financial) that seem to survive on a wing and a prayer, hoping that disaster won’t hit them. Systems failures like the recent one at Amazon and Buncefield (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buncefield_fire) have direct business impact when staff aren’t suitably trained, capable or overstretched. It will be a shame if it takes the failure of a large company to kick people into action.

      Chris

  • RC

    Generalist can be a euphemism for someone who doesn’t have a deep enough understanding of specific area to troubleshoot problems to a solution. (Paper CNE? Paper MCSE?)

    A specialist can be a euphemism for someone who only knows the vCenter interface and does nothing all day but p2v. (Or the storage consultant who has someone else do the rack & stack and then charges 300$/hr to upgrade OnTap.)

    (Don’t get me started on the big storage vendors that are painfully stupid until the third time something blows up, and then they rush in a “top gun” who re-demands the logs you’ve been sending them for the last two months.)

    In the current market situation, companies can look outside for people with all the experience they want in infrastructure architects. From my point of view, no one is looking to build from within. And anyone looking outside is after specific certs that cost 4k$ US each.

    During the boom days, (as a generalist) all the experience you gained by working with other teams was valuable. These days, if you haven’t lead a project, or piloted a roll out of some sort, the experience is just treated as resume padding.

    Frankly, the mix of pundits, social media storage gurus, vitualization wonks, and big storage vendors reps, strike me as out of touch with what the average customer / captive employee is going through these days.

    Thinks of it as a big bubble of exuberance that will pop like the mortgage market did. When the last cloud friendly app has moved, and the last of the (idiotically allowed to grow in the first place) windows sprawl has been p2v’d, the IT labor market is going to implode.

  • Equals42

    It is true about infrastructure or IT architects. Companies tend to bring in the odd consultant for that piece but in that they lose institutional knowledge and longterm planning. The architect should be there to identify where specialist consultants can help. With the lines blurring and everything being virtualized, every midsize company is going to need someone who groks the 30,000 foot view in the truest sense of “grok”.

    BTW, I love RC’s comment on big vendors support. It is sadly true. You usually have to yell at the sales rep to get anything done even if it’s happened twice.

  • David D

    “For those larger organisations, take a leaf out of the medical or armed forces book, where specialisation and hierarchy already work well”

    But at the forefront of the NHS is the GP, a generalist! I actually thing we need more generalists as a result of people becoming more specialised.

    Read “Sick Notes” by Dr Copperfield if you want to see now a GP views the specialists. It’s not without its caveats.

    • http://www.brookend.com Chris Evans

      David

      There are pros and cons in your argument. Consider for instance that many GP surgeries are employing practice nurses to handle routine injections and prescriptions for colds/coughs rather than have the specially skilled doctor do it. In my (considerable) experience of the health service (both my parents worked in it as nurses), I find that the GP defers to the specialist on all but the simplest of tasks. It makes you question the level of training they have some times. However in my post I was more referring to the way hospitals rather than GPs are run. But (and this is recent experiences), I had a situation where a more junior GP referred to the senior partner for advice before taking action – it still fits my analogy.

      Chris

  • http://darusintegration.blogspot.com halchris

    The biggest reason that companies do not choose specialists is due to the fact they are so hard to replace. I have been a generalist for quite some time and am now have been specializing in the virtualization space. Companies will hire specialists but they have to have experience in other areas.

  • Richard

    Like halchris, I call my self a generalist. Not because I want to, but because I can’t call myself a specialist. I have no desire to be a generalist, I am just trying to get my feet in the IT game. I know how to do “stuff”, have always been that guy in the small business office who can fix things when they are broken. The scope of the technology that I get to put my hands on is very narrow, but I have always viewed this as being a generalist. As I look at building my career, I don’t ever want to stay a generalist. Like Rob said, 6 miles wide 1 inch deep, this is pointless. I am looking to step into a large company under the direction of the specialists, get my feet wet and my hands dirty, then make my move for specialization when I have a better sense of who does what and what I like. Then it’s nose to the grindstone, certs, schooling if need be, until I am the specialist and am taking the generalists under my wing.

    So, I don’t think the generalist is bad, it’s a step that many should take in their IT careers, but it shouldn’t be a goal. If companies were smart, they should look to the IT Generalist as someone to groom into the next specialist as opposed to just general labor in the IT department.

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