Demise and rise of the IT generalist
As a contractor in IT Infrastructure who moves between clients fairly frequently, I am often pretty shocked by the comparitiviely low level of expertise of the Data Centre operations staff that I meet on my clients sites, I'm not complaining, it keeps me in a job, but I wonder about the sustainability of it. The problem I think stems from the way that IT departments are structured now. I am not conviced that there is a pathway that really enables traning in IT Infrastructure, because there aren't really any basic jobs that are very useful at educating staff in the more complex stuff anymore.
I'm only 33, but when I took on my first IT support job in the year 2000, it was doing break/fix desktop and server support, we had a mix of 10BaseT and 10base2 networking across the 3 floors of the office building, we also had a Citrix MetaFrame farm of 2 servers that supported about 60 thin clients that were old 386 and 486 PC's running a DOS based Citrix ICA client, there were then about 40 high end CAD workstations that used a mix of WinNT and Win2000 and accessed a few published apps via Citrix.
In order to support this environment it was necessary for me to understand the basics of the various Windows operating systems, of DOS, of Citrix and a little of Linux. I then also had to undertsand plenty about the various different network types and protocols that we operated in the environment (primarily TCP/IP and IPX), about bridges, routers and switches. There was a team of 3 of us and we did everything from supporting the servers, configuring the firewalls, building / imaging the PC's and 'thin clients' and running through the office moving terminators in order to locate faults in and fix our decrepit 10Base2 network. In this environment, I learned the basics and root of almost all of the IT knowledge that I use today, everything I know now is an extension of one of those concepts, however, I think I am one of the last people that had this type of generalist 'apprenticeship' in IT.
The fact is that people dont gain this type of experience now, if you have a fault with a PC in the office environment, you re-image it or replace it, you dont diagnose a fault with the hardware or software, you just reset things to a known good configuration and move on to the next problem. The office IT department has been relieved of most of it's responsibility and major applications and services have moved to the Data Centre. First line support calls, instead of being attended to by the local office IT person, are now dealt with over the phone from call centres, these call centres are miles from the data centres that would provide a career progression path for those staff, meaning that there are few junior positions in IT support and a massive skills gap to cross in order to work in the complex parts of our environments.
In the Data Centre itself, the industry has in the past encouraged staff to specialise in specific areas, there are few IT generalists now, people have instead become compartmentalised in to teams according to skills. What this means is that people who are young blood in IT now, do not get as broad a spectrum of experience as their predecessors, what they instead learn is how to implement the specific products that their employers use, often only in the employers specific usage scenario.
This is a problem, not only because those products themselves become obsolete (and so the skills associated with them have a finite life and value), but because things have already been changing for some years in a way that means that this specialising is already hurting both staff and businesses... things are becoming more integrated and people once again need to have knowledge of many areas of IT as things like Virtualisation begin to require knowledge of many disceplins, including networking, storage, compute hardware, operating systems, services, hypervisor technology and management suites, the problem is that usually most support staff have only knowledge of 2 or 3 of these and if they have been in IT less than 10 years it is harder to explain to them the concepts required to understand the pieces that they are missing, they often lack the experience that provided this base knowledge, by starting their careers in a specialism.
The question is... how do we fix this problem? Vendor training is not the right approach, because vendor training centres around products, but how do we make sure the next generation of IT staff is able to understand and adopt new technology quickly?