New Advice for Building Your IT Team
Why generalists are gaining favor in cash-strapped IT departments.
- By Greg Shields
Sometimes, building your team of IT professionals can be best accomplished by aiming wide rather than going deep.
This was the topic of a recent eye-opening discussion I had with Jeff Galina, CIO of Mortgage Cadence Inc. Mortgage Cadence is a midsize company in Denver that specializes in creating software for the mortgage loan industry.
"Sometimes, instead of hiring on-staff IT professionals that are super-deep in one particular area [such as a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) or Microsoft Certified Architect], it can be more cost-effective to hire a generalist who is more well-rounded in multiple technology areas," Galina suggests. "Then, you can buy vendor-support contracts for those rare times when you need to augment their experience with deep knowledge."
This statement struck me as particularly insightful considering today's economy, and it reveals a current state in our industry with which we Windows insiders must come to grips. Many parts of our industry are moving away from the need for deeply technical talent in necessary but outwardly arcane technologies. Operation of highly critical services like e-mail messaging, voice mail and even databases and file services can now be offloaded to "the cloud" with a reasonable level of security and privacy. Leveraging economies of scale, those cloud providers can incorporate greater levels of availability for critical services than an individual business typically would be able to offer in-house. Sensitive data can also be offloaded to other companies for management, freeing businesses to focus on what they do best: running the business.
Galina adds: "Depending on your business and its size, there can be an IT operations model for hiring the jack-of-all-trades [JOAT] IT professional rather than the specialist. In fact, sometimes hiring a team of IT generalists can be a better idea than hiring specialists."
He notes a recurring theme in his own 15 years of consulting experience, during which he's assisted numerous small to midsize businesses (SMBs). In his experience, companies that have invested in teams of broad-based generalists have a tendency to function more smoothly, due to the generalists' ability to more effectively communicate with each other.
"I can't tell you how many times that companies who've hired JOAT IT professionals were so much better off," Galina says. "Their people can talk to each other. They can work together. In companies where the IT team is comprised of, for example, one high-level Microsoft person, one CCIE and a database expert, when one person gets sick, busy or needs to go on vacation, you've got a staffing issue."
Positioning the JOAT
While enterprise organizations and those with exceedingly complex computing needs will always have the need for specialists, this line of thinking can be valuable for the hiring manager in a classic SMB. At the same time, it has a very different meaning for the job-seeking IT professional who's looking for career advancement.
If you're a business decision-maker or hiring manager, think for a minute about the options for IT services that you have available. You can incorporate those services in-house, hiring and retaining expert talent to ensure that your business services remain operational. Consolidating talented employees into your payroll ensures that you have ultimate guidance over their activities, as well as over their long-term planning.
However, that same consolidation also comes at a cost, both in recurring expenditure as well as in the opportunity cost of spending that money elsewhere. A wrong IT hiring decision can also have a major impact on your business operations.
Contrast this approach to Galina's hybrid model, which leans partially on the services of external sources for the resolution of "deep technical issues." Those sources can be first-party in nature, arriving as a function of the service contracts you buy for your hardware equipment. They can come through the aid of IT services firms, which typically hire high-end talent to provide customizable -- yet often "packaged," when you really take the time to analyze them -- services and support offerings.
A third, less considered, option, is an extension of Galina's hybrid approach. This approach leverages the growing stable of fully independent and non-vendor-associated "strategic consultants" to assist with high-level issues. My company and I have engaged in a growing number of these "come visit us for a day and confirm our thinking" engagements; businesses appreciate these consultants for their candor and lack of vendor bias.
In any of these alternative models, companies still have need for on-site talent to manage daily IT operations. It's here where today's population of JOATs can be best suited, and can provide a maximized ROI when properly combined with external assistance.
Keep up with Evolution
For the IT professional, today's new world of work means that many traditional systems administrator jobs are slowly disappearing for the advanced administrator. This doesn't necessarily mean that advanced administration jobs are no longer available. Rather, it means that those jobs are shifting away from classical IT operations roles and into industries where specialization is absolutely required -- one example being the third-party solution providers already mentioned. It further means that today's JOATs must develop project-management, vendor-management and contract-management skills if they're hoping to remain relevant.
Every industry evolves over time. At one point not long ago, there were a half-dozen video rental stores within a 10-minute radius of my house. Now, there are none. At one point, a previous employer hired an individual who handled only the e-mail system. Now, those responsibilities are aggregated by a team elsewhere, with contracted support for quickly solving difficult issues.
In the end, businesses and IT pros must evolve to fit the commodity-based nature of today's IT services. That's not to say that deeply technical individuals won't find work. It might just mean that their employment will be with companies that sell IT services, rather than with the customers of those companies.
Greg Shields is Author Evangelist with PluralSight, and is a globally-recognized expert on systems management, virtualization, and cloud technologies. A multiple-year recipient of the Microsoft MVP, VMware vExpert, and Citrix CTP awards, Greg is a contributing editor for Redmond Magazine and Virtualization Review Magazine, and is a frequent speaker at IT conferences worldwide. Reach him on Twitter at @concentratedgreg.