I started working professionally with computers in 2001, getting my first IT job servicing networks and servers across Marin County. It introduced me to the larger world of computer networking, the size and scale of corporate networks far outstripping anything I had encountered in my own hobbyist pursuits. Managing user authentication, subnet ranges, firewalls, and more, I realized quite quickly that it was a new and emerging world I wanted to be a part of.
Over the next few years I had the good fortune to be able to choose my own path – IT has many sub-disciplines, gaining more all the time, and it’s easy to start off in an area then be largely confined there for vast swaths of a career. When I started, there were just a few specializations: user support (help desk), web development, server administration, network administration, and databases. All but the most specialized IT jobs fell into one of those categories, and they utilized very different skillsets. In my career I’ve moved around a fair amount, but largely tried to stay within the scope of server administration, because I loved working on the core infrastructure of an organization’s business. One might say I was a generalist within the system administrator sphere, because I never focused on mailservers, or Microsoft Windows, or Linux, or any other particular type of service delivery.
Looking at the modern IT landscape, it would be all but impossible to have as broad or as general an exposure today as I did twenty years ago. The areas in which I generalize are now whole branching categories all their own, each one a rabbit hole of specialties, unique use-cases, and esoteric knowledge. To put it more plainly, when I was moving up the ranks of System Administration, I had to know a fair amount about mail servers, web servers, security, networking, programming, user management, databases, and the various programs and protocols which power all of the above. Nowadays job postings look for people skilled in a very particular type of web server, or having experience with a specific mail server. There aren’t really “System Administrators” anymore, because the field itself has broadened so far. Knowledge has gotten more specific and more compartmentalized.
I’m glad about that in some ways, because it means the technology and its use cases are advancing, developing, reaching new heights we didn’t think of in prior decades. More and more people are finding gainful and engaging work in the IT field, and I think that’s fantastic. What gives me pause however, is I think there has been a hyper-focus on specializations and the trade off has been a view of the larger picture, the mechanisms and methods through which all of these discrete systems and processes actually intertwine.
In this industry there has been a long-time divide between those who develop tools and those who manage the systems and networks they run on – think of the terms “developers” and “operations” – nowadays there is a fairly buzzword-heavy attempt to reunite the two into what is called “DevOps.” I think it’s a great step forward, but the very definition of “devops” has expanded beyond both of its component parts. For some, devops is the ability to think critically about the security and underlying infrastructure necessary for a given project to work. For others, it’s deploying software containers and handling their own patches. Everyone seems to have their own definition.
I suppose that’s where it all boils down to. Things are changing so quickly we’ve lost a common lexicon, a largely-unified dictionary that ensures two people are on the same page when they use the same words. This is a conversation I have with my clients all the time when they talk about “the cloud.” Invariably my first question is “what do you mean when you say ‘the cloud?'” because it’s different for everyone, and what their expectations and what my expectations are may be (and often are) wildly different.
To everyone who is thinking about a career in IT, I would say the most important aspects to your success are 1) your attitude and desire to learn, 2) a nurturing environment which allows you to, and 3) checking in and making sure the work you’re doing is the work you want to be doing. There are wise people in this industry, there are toxic people, there are smart people, and there are assholes. Most industries are similar, in that they have good and bad people, but with IT so much focus is put on senior leadership, without thoughts to how many people under them may be burning out. A bad work environment can be incredibly detrimental to your immediate and long-term success, trust me.
As always, my email inbox is open for anyone who has questions about working in IT, potential career roadmaps, resume help, or to bounce ideas off of. Reach out! firstname.lastname@example.org