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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.

Michele Chubirka, also known as Mrs. Y, is a recovering Unix engineer with a focus on network security. She likes long walks in hubsites, traveling to security conferences, and spending extended hours in the Bat Cave. She believes every problem can be solved with a "for" ... View Full Bio
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