operations as an endangered species

Back in 2007, I took a change in role away from UNIX type systems administration toward network engineering focused roles. This was for a multitude of reasons, not least of which was it better matched my interests. A consideration however was that virtualisation was well into changing the world of systems administration, and with that it was clear that the market for system administration generalists was going to become more, rather than less, limited with time. Essentially as virtualisation took hold, it was my prediction that one system administration generalist could likely be expected to support an order of magnitude more applications; while this isn’t a bad thing, it certainly limited the career scope of working in related spaces. It was my guess that working in networking would be a little safer, being that irrespective of what happened to compute, there’d likely always be a need for managed network connectivity (more on that later; suffice to say I no longer believe this either).

Roll on 2015. If anything, this forecast has demonstrated itself to to be underoptimistic; while Amazon’s EC2 started making itself felt in around 2008, I and many others failed to second-guess that shared infrastructure compute would become the centrepiece of businesses’ deployment strategies so soon; I would have suggested at the time that relying on EC2 and its ilk for mainstream business needs was — somehow — inappropriate governance.

Late 2008 saw the global financial crisis took hold. I don’t think it’s an accident that business interest in gaining efficiencies by relying on X-as-a-service offerings really took hold in its wake; managing business services in-house can be expensive, and short of overt outsourcing of all aspects of a business’ IT needs, using as-a-service offerings allows a reasonable compromise between a tailored solution and a low-cost, one-size-fits-all one. The GFC caused many businesses to search for efficiencies, and going to fully virtualised platforms is a logical way forward.

With X-as-a-service has come the disappearance of highly skilled, highly focused specialists: these are now hired by, and work for, the businesses delivering the service. In a sense, the ranks of generalists has also diminished somewhat; the sense that there’s a trend here is unmistakable.

Information Technology in all its forms is now becoming more like a utility, insofar as everyone has to have a basic understanding of how to operate all aspects of it that are relevant to them, and a very very few — specialists — actually touch any of the moving parts. This isn’t a short lived trend, and the average CxO *wants* the trend to continue; they don’t want to hire people into generic IT operations roles. IT operations roles have been derided as janitorial for quite some time; the disappearance of operations generalists is the net result.

Nor is this a bad thing. Information Technology — almost more than any other career path — is defined by disruption; it’s driven disruption in every other industry it’s touched, and with that disruption comes changes in the very nature of IT itself.

Back to networking. In 2007 I was of the belief that networking would be relatively immune to this; after all, no matter where the compute is housed, people need access to it. There’s an underlying assumption here: that the nature of networking wouldn’t change along with compute and storage — an assumption that is, naturally, wrong. Network-as-a-service, simplified and automated to the point where a skilled network generalist is no longer required in the business itself, is clearly in the near term future for many businesses.

None of this is to say that generalist operations people are now irrelevant: there are still times where a generalist is needed. However what is changing is the need for multitudes of such staff, hired for and working within a business which treats IT as a supporting function. Instead, a small number, possibly working for multiple businesses — in the same way that a business might have maintenance staff come in once per week, or an electrician on-call for light-duty ad-hoc work — is a more likely outcome.

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