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The Return Of The IT Generalist

Specialization has been rampant in the IT profession, but virtualization, cloud computing and SDN defy organizational divisions and may usher in a new generation of IT generalists.

The level of specialization in information technology has increased exponentially since I started my career over a decade ago. My first IT job could best be described as “jack of all trades.” I was responsible for the network and file servers, troubleshooting desktops, administering the email system, and even updating the website.

Since then, the size of IT organizations has exploded. There are enough titles and levels in an org chart to make a poor HR drone’s head spin, and exclaim in confusion, “What’s an ERP specialist?” However, with the rise of virtualization, cloud computing, and software-defined networking, the days of the IT specialist may wane as the IT generalist makes a comeback.

As an IT generalist at the law firm, I was the resident nerd. Most of the lawyers thought I sprinkled pixie dust and unicorn tears to work my magic. One day I was shocked when I made an attorney’s day because I increased the font size on his computer. This was the same attorney, Thomas Guidoboni, who defended Robert Tappan Morris, creator of the infamous worm that wreaked havoc on the Internet in 1988. To this day, he has no idea what the Morris Worm actually did.

Now, many organizations have IT experts for everything: There are systems engineers, network architects, senior cyber analysts, and application security specialists. This increased specialization was probably a necessary evil, as IT organizations grew bloated with staff to work on a proliferation of proprietary hardware, applications and operating systems.

But inevitably, IT departments broke up into gangs more rabidly antagonistic towards each other than the Jets versus the Sharks in “West Side Story. “ When I worked at a university, the network team took the Cisco enable password away from the systems guys. It was only a foreshadowing of the deadly stasis to follow in which nothing ever got done, because no one could effectively manage the communication channels between our groups.

[Read why network and security engineers need to understand where network virtualization is going, and why they need to go with it in "Don't Leave Network Virtualization To Server Admins."]

With extreme specialization, have we created our own professional prisons, locking ourselves in chains of boredom? Engineers are by nature curious creatures and you need only look at most IT resumes for evidence. The two-year job-hopper is common in this field, because an individual will simply run out of challenges in most IT departments.

This is a stark contrast to my early days at the university, when you could easily try something new by finding someone who was tired of what they were doing and agreeing to swap duties. It kept things interesting and encouraged a highly versatile workforce; it was our own professional development strategy.

Will virtualization return us to this bygone age? Is this the time of the next generation of generalists in which a system or network administrator will have to understand all different aspects of the data center, progressively impacted by the DevOps trend? Cloud computing and virtualization continue to ignore staid IT organizational structures, defying categories, like mixing peanut butter and chocolate to come up with a new and improved version of the infrastructure.

Cisco’s recent announcement of its own particular flavor of the software-defined network (SDN), courtesy of its Insieme subsidiary, provides evidence of the new order. Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) is part of the new wave of the fuzzy infrastructure, in which the traditional lines delineating groups are no longer clear as the data center becomes the application.

In the age of Google, when almost any information is so readily accessible, how much specialization do we really need anymore? Will many experts wind up abandoned in a heap, along with sets of encyclopedias and backup tape drives? This isn’t to say IT won’t need virtuosos with unique skills who can come in and play the network like a great concerto, but it could be we’ll soon reach a place where most organizations won’t need specialists. They’ll be perfectly happy with the IT neo-generalist and his or her magic pixie dust.

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User Rank: Apprentice
11/11/2013 | 4:50:33 PM
re: The Return Of The IT Generalist
If you believe in a highly orchestrated future, the question is whether the people who build and manage that middleware are generalists because they touch everything or integration specialists because their specific skill is pulling things together.

Whatever the answer, it's probably all nuance. The real implication of what you are talking about is that the changes vendors are pushing and customers are clamoring for extend well beyond technology. Those companies who recognize this as a real Change Initiative (capital 'C', capital 'I') are more likely to succeed on the first try. When you are dealing with peoples' lives, it goes well beyond technology.

Maybe what we really need is a different kind of human specialist...

-Mike Bushong
User Rank: Apprentice
11/9/2013 | 6:11:00 PM
re: The Return Of The IT Generalist
IT generalists are not limited to open systems or the internet. There are mainframers today that have become 'generalists' as well, especially with the advent of retiring baby boomers. Speaking as one, I bounce from day-to0day between the traditional M/F operating systems zOS, zVM & zVSE. There was a day when this was separated between 2 and sometimes three individuals. Also, there were telecommunications and database specialists as well. All of this has become part of a mainframe generalist's duties.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/9/2013 | 3:27:26 PM
re: The Return Of The IT Generalist
Interesting discussion, I think being a generalist was fun while it lasted but as the internet grew and the velocity and complexity of technology changed it was doomed to fade away. Compliance and auditing requirements also had an impact, separation of duties etc. I'm in agreement that the cloud is going to have an impact on traditional systems engineering and infrastructure skill sets but as I wrote in a recent blog post here - , I think the cloud is going to give rise not to the generalist but rather the "uber developer".
User Rank: Apprentice
11/8/2013 | 10:18:47 PM
re: The Return Of The IT Generalist
(Speaking as a proud generalist!) I would say there are just fewer places for specialists because I.T. has evolved so much. I would ask if a generalist really still cover deep issues with xml web apps,.net performance,cisco voice configs and sql database indexing/design issues within strict SLAs? You still need those specialists because companies can't always afford the time for a generalist to get up to speed with an issue. Have said that, you can't beat being an infrastructure generalist because you are generally roped into fixing issues no-one else can because they just don't get the big picture.
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