In the beginning, IT shops were primarily staffed with 'IT generalists'. Those people had a generalized set of skills that allowed them to 'do computers'. Then, things got complicated. Networks became an essential business component as email and connectivity emerged as critical necessities. Eventually, there were specialists for everything. The systems administrators, the applications developers, the network engineers, the network administrators, and a group of tech support specialists who acted as medium between the users and those complex systems.

From Generalization to Specialization and Back Again

For decades, the IT department became an increasingly specialized industry. Now, the trend is shifting toward more generalized skill sets. This trend is driven largely by changes like the SDN and DevOps.

Now, things have somewhat come full circle. Two factors in particular are driving those changes: the migration to the Software-Defined Network and the DevOps movement. Together, these trends mean that fewer businesses are looking just for a 'network administrator' or 'application developer' and more companies are once again investing in IT generalists.

IT generalists don't necessarily have to know everything about everything. But they do have to be able to step up to the plate no matter what task is currently at hand. For instance, with the SDN, network administrators will be less valued for their ability to understand abstract and uncommon CLI languages, but more important to the organization because they have both networking troubleshooting skills and the ability to do some scripting or coding as needed.

The Demands on IT Specialists Like Network Administrators are Increasing Dramatically

This is actually welcome news in an era in which the job descriptions for a network administrator are becoming bloated, and frankly, unreasonable. Many of these job ads list a lengthy set of skills necessary for the position, some with incredibly specific experience with proprietary software and hardware. In essence, your 12 years of experience with system ABC is meaningless if you don't have 5+ years experience with system XYZ.

IT Generalists Actually Get More Job Offers & Make More Money

Job listings for specialists like network administrators are usually long and extremely detailed. IT generalists tend to get more job offers and to command more pay once they land a job.

In fact, IT and networking generalists may actually get better pay. According to researchers who conducted a study at Tulane University, generalists are paid more highly than those who specialize in specific IT skill sets. One of the researchers, speaking to the Harvard Business Review, had this to say, stated that, "Specialists were definitely penalized by the market. Not only were they less likely to receive multiple offers, but they were offered smaller signing bonuses. In some cases the specialists earned up to $48.000 less than their generalist peers."

What does this mean for the network administrator? Should you opt out of those (formerly lucrative) proprietary-specific certifications and go for more generalized IT skills? Well, yes and no. There is, and will continue to be, a strong market for those who are able to understand protocols at the most basic level. But there is a strong demand for networking professionals who can also create a network at any time to support essential business functions.

Network administrators are well advised to take on some scripting and programming skills to supplement their knowledge of CLI. They also need to be able to integrate virtual environments with ease. Work on building skills like:

• knowing how protocols work
• having a working knowledge of operating systems
• having a working knowledge of Windows administration
• plotting SD WAN links

The advent of the SDN also means that what once required lots of cables and wiring and frames now is virtualized. Network administrators need to be able to work with the software (aka, coding), instead of just the old ways of troubleshooting and network maintenance.

Working in a Shop with IT Generalists

One of the keys to success is learning to work in a shop with more generalized IT professionals, where there is less hierarchy and less clearly defined roles.

Perhaps as critical as the specific skills is the ability to work within a generalized IT environment, where generalists overtake the jobs traditionally reserved for specialists. For example, in the absence of an assigned database manager, systems administrator, or application developer, the network administrator becomes a little of all those things. Additionally, they have to work well with other generalists. Hence, the challenges faced by all IT departments embracing DevOps come into play.

• Embrace new ways of doing things. For instance, some leaders in DevOps shops hold events like hackathons. These types of non-traditional events can help speed new innovations to the marketplace. Employees become less focused on specific job titles and which specialization is the most prestigious and learn to focus instead on serving the business and developing a stellar customer experience.
• Establish IT as a business within a business. Instead of trying to rework how IT fits into today's organization, view the setup as IT being a business that exists solely to serve the business you're a part of. They are your customers, you are the customer servants. Now, the goal isn't to 'outdo' each other with your special skills, but instead to function as a thriving business, which includes the IT department as a whole.
• Get the right tools. SDN and DevOps are only as viable as the tools to support them. We can't eliminate specialists in favor of generalists until the infrastructure supports that level of automation. The network administrator needs to work together with other IT professionals to design and build the IT infrastructure that makes the most sense for their organization.
• Give it time. While SDN and DevOps are dominant topics in the industry trade journals and blogs, these are still relatively new concepts that will take time. Not only will these innovations take time to evolve across the IT industry as a whole, they will also take time to find their place within each specific enterprise. It isn't necessary to generalize your specific positions today or tomorrow, or even next year. What is important is that IT pros are able to see what the future holds and begin to move in the direction that allows them to adapt to these innovations as they permeate the industry.

IT generalization is just one part of the overall impact of digital transformation in the enterprise. To learn more about how this impacts you, the network administrator, download our special report: Digital IT and Transformation: A Global View of Trends and Requirements.