The Return of the Generalist in IT

John Smith is an ExtraHop Solutions Architect and CTP. He spoke at Geek Speak Live! at Citrix Synergy.

I recently spoke at Citrix Synergy about the return of the generalist. It was a Geek Speak Live! session with several hundred Citrix engineers in attendance. It was an honor for me and something I've long looked forward to as a Citrix Technology Professional and author of the Edgesight Under the Hood blog. (You can watch the talk in the video embedded at the end of this post. I show up just after 4:30 minutes.)

Where Did the Generalist Go?

One of the things that we've lamented in IT is the "death of the generalist" in which skills requirements have narrowed. To use a four-year college degree as an analogy, it seems as though a lot of new IT professionals jump right into their junior year, skipping their breadth requirements, and don't really diversify and learn other disciplines as a result.

In my first job in IT, I was the UNIX guy, the Cisco administrator, and the Microsoft SQL DBA. It was really interesting, but there was a lot of chaos in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, in order to bring order to what was somewhat organized chaos, we've grouped people so that you have:

  • Network engineers who understand IOS, Wireshark, VLAN tagging
  • Systems folks who understand UNIX, Windows Server, and Active Directory
  • Developers who understand SQL, Oracle, PL/SQL, Ruby, Javascript, PHP, and C#

Skill sets in IT are generally divided between networking, systems, and development. Skill sets in IT are generally divided between networking, systems, and development.

But I think the generalist is returning, and here's why:

Signs the Generalist Is Returning

In the last few years, we've seen some systems folks starting to branch out, learning PowerShell and Python, because some of the ways that we manage and monitor systems is by using APIs. Citrix engineers understand the need for this generalization because they are kind of like Dr. Who—they regenerate every time Citrix makes a new acquisition. And a lot of our skill sets have followed the growth of the Citrix portfolio into mobile device management, application delivery controllers, and so forth. With some of the things that Brandon Shell and Jason Conger have done, PowerShell has become very popular. And with Edgesight, you had to learn how to make ad hoc queries. So we're using PowerShell and SQL, and if you've done anything with NetScaler, then you probably have to use regex.

This generalization is not unique to Citrix environments. The other day I was supporting an ExtraHop customer setting up wire data analytics in a virtualized environment. I noticed that we had the network architect and the cloud architect working together, but I saw that these two positions are on a collision course as software-defined networking (SDN) forces them to learn the skills of the other.

What Is Driving Generalization?

Matt Cauthorn, Director of Systems Engineering at ExtraHop, wrote something recently that struck a chord with me: "The coming changes in virtual computing are going to force people out of their comfort zones and it's going to be special."

The way I see it, there are three major trends driving generalization in IT:

  • Software-defined networking (SDN) – When there's an intelligent Layer 3 switch on every hypervisor, who manages that switch? Does the Cisco guy become the VMware guy, or vice versa? Perhaps there is a new position: the vAdmin. We now have hypervisor hosts with thousands of guests and several hundred switches. How are you going to manage that, and who will do it? The answer may come when we decide if the intelligence is at the core or in the SDN.
  • 10, 40, and 100 gigabit networking – 2013 was the first year when 10Gbit switches outsold 1Gbit switches. Although exponential growth in network traffic poses challenges for traditional monitoring tools, wire data analytics promises to accelerate generalization by opening up this rich source of data to a broader audience. ExtraHop enables teams to work together using wire data, which is all L2-L7 communication between systems, including full bi-directional transaction payloads. One area where wire data will play a more important cross-functional role is security. These high-speed networks are too expensive to air gap, so InfoSec analysts have had to get used to the idea of logical separation instead of physical separation. Wire data analytics can help equip InfoSec and security-minded IT operations teams to secure these environments. VLAN tagging has also added a level of complexity and will encourage greater generalization.
  • Growth of APIs – When you are managing and monitoring thousands of machines, you are going to need to use APIs. Traditional management tools have been lagging, and system administrators need to understand how to use oData, Python, and Powershell. The same will be true for network engineers. How are you going to manage a VXLAN environment with thousands of switches without some sort of API? You will need to add something like Powershell or Python to your skill set.
In conclusion, this isn't the first time that IT professionals have had to learn new skill sets. IT professionals that have the generalist skills needed to handle the convergence of virtualization, networking, and systems administration will be more marketable to IT organizations.

If you have thoughts, we'd love to hear them! Please leave a comment below or engage me directly on Twitter at @jmsazboy.

Watch the recorded session below (starting just after 4:30), or view here if the player is misbehaving.

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