Off-topic: universal engineers

Decades ago when I was still in high school and working on a programming project during the summer break, an IT old-timer gave me the following bit of advice: “Remember, God created professions so that everyone could do the job he’s qualified to do”. It took me years before I understood what he had been trying to tell me, but this seems to be an industry-wide disease. Judging by some of the e-mails I receive a lot of people who are proficient in other IT specialties think they can configure the routers with a little help of good uncle Google and free support from fellow bloggers.

It seems the “ability” of a “generic” IT employee to tackle any problem somewhat related to IT is also unique to our industry. Last week a woodworker was installing my kitchen and flatly refused to connect the electric cable of the ceramic cooktop to the wall outlet citing potential liabilities (please remember: I’m not living in US but in Central Europe). An HTML programmer asked to configure the enterprise firewall might not be so reluctant. Why do you think some people in our industry believe they are universal engineers?

18 comments:

  1. Why? Because a carpenter is less likely to have played with roofing, electrical work and plumbing before deciding to focus on carpentry.
    Where-as some of us have played with programming (assembler, basic, C), web design, Windows OS administration, Linux administration, Oracle etc. before deciding to specialise in communications. It's not such a stretch at all.

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  2. Greg is right about the reason, but it should be avoided. The worst mistake I observe in my job is web programmers forced to be sysadmins of web servers. This is nearly always a bad idea, because there are no checks and balances, the coders can do whatever they want to mess up production servers ;-)

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  3. One reason I see come up quite often is the manager of the "IT Admin" expects the person who fills this role to know all about IT. You usually see this in small to medium size businesses were a single IT person is all that is needed full time and usually reports to someone within the company that knows nothing about IT.

    I have also seen these managers get upset when confronted with the notion that the IT admin does not know all and consultants should be brought in for specialty project out of the IT admins scope.

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  4. Because

    1) there are not enough IT people around to do everything that needs to be done. The world is still transitioning from a Jock-based culture to a Geek-based culture, and those people who are bright enough to learn something new are not all that common.

    2) IT people are often bright, flexible, artistic and creative. If you consider artists as an analogy, many are equally able to paint, scuplt, write, draw and act but choose one aspect as their primary focus, and use other aspects of art to keep their creativity going. IT people will work outside their chosen field as creative exercise. That doesn't make it right, but that's why we do it.

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  5. Well, no one would really ask a plumber to do the electric work in a company, but surely enough the IT guy would always be asked to switch from being a Systems Engineer to a Network Engineer, and who knows at times, you may even be expected to be a DBA expert.

    As Greg, most of us are in the field because this is what we enjoy doing. It is a passion... new technologies are like hot breads from the oven. You want to get your hands on it and learn more of it.

    The problem is that, some of us, after plugging their first switch and connecting the console cable have already "Network Expert" labelled on their resume... I have met many supposedly "Senior Unix Expert", who barely understood the basic subroutines of the kernel... and many "Network Expert" who never knew what "TCP Congestion Control" is all about...

    That is to say, management might be the root of the cause of this problem in most company, but we surely started it with our legendary ego :-)

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  6. It's a question of scale and cost. In small/medium businesses, where IT is not key to the business running, a single jack-of-all-trades admin is simply a more cost effective proposition than having several specialists, either full time or on an as-needed consultancy basis.

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  7. If we stick with your woodworker analogy, I would say that I know a ton of people that work with their hands and have a specific job they normally do, but they would be up to tackling any project around the house. They will fix a toilet, remodel the kitchen or roof the house. You meet IT people like that too.

    I would even say that in order to work for a small Cisco reseller as an engineer you need a diverse skill set. You might do a wireless install one day, a firewall the next, voice, call center with database integration and web page integration, unity with exchange,Tcl scripting, Perl scripting....the list goes on.

    On the other hand I have met double CCIE's working for a large reseller that wouldn't touch anything VoIP related to save his life, but he knew firewalls & routers to an amazing depth. And that was fine, because there was a need for his super router skills.

    I guess my point is that there are positions for 'jack of all trade' people and there are positions for specialists.

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  8. I think it's not a bad thing if the HTML programmer can configure the firewall because for each and everything one should not be dependent. I would like to be the multitasking though I am having the network background but still I can use my skills in the management as well as in programming also.

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  9. Many of us have had numerous roles over our careers as we climb the IT ladder and are in fact very proficient across many disciplines. I have had 10 years doing PC support, 7 years doing System administration (Windows, Solaris, Linux), 8 years doing Cisco and Nortel networking and the last 5 years in InfoSec. I keep up with many of these area in the interest of flexibility and job security.

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  10. Lol, "HTML programmer." :)

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  11. LOL, Packetlife

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  12. Forget the analogies for a minute and think practically. First, if you want your data communications to fail, then let anyone configure your routers and switches - programmer, system administrator, excel jockey, etc. You'll learn the hard way that someone proficient in the job is the best choice if you want it to work well.

    Secondly, certainly people are right when they observe that there are not enough people in many, if not most, IT departments to address all the IT needs. That, however, is a not a good reason to turn the local MSoffice expert loose on the router you depend upon to connect your websites to the Internet. If you can't afford a full time data communications person and your needs in that department are not pressing enough, then hire a consultant who knows what to do. Don't turn your HTML/Excel/etc programmer (sorry, I couldn't leave that one alone :-) loose on your cisco gear just because you don't like consultants. Unless, that is, you're okay with failure.

    All professional fields have within them mutually exclusive fields of expertise. To switch back to less-than-fitting analogies for a diverting second, nobody wants an eye surgeon doing brain surgery or vice versa. So data comm people should be turning up T1's and windows system admins should be running active directory domains. If someone running an IT department doesn't see it that way, keep your resume up to date. That individual will be looking for someone to blame for some kind of disaster in the near future.

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  13. Most managers do not understand IT so they don't understand the employees the manage. The majority of IT folks I have ran across over the years are very cocky. They think they can do everything. As they "grow up" most shed the all knowing attitude and focus on certain skills. The ones who don't remain where they are.

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  14. True!! i hate when some java programmer or web master said i know how to configure Router. On other hand guys after CCNP started acting like pros, everyone here is hot shot (Scott Morris) I respect him.

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  15. Some parallels can be drawn between IT and the medical field I believe. While all doctors share some fundamental level of common knowledge and can most likely handle common basic diagnoses and treatment, there is the necessity for specialization. This is good to keep in mind when troubleshooting perhaps or assisting others in troubleshooting because as the human body has functionality that is common to all medical understanding the systems that we work on in some way share a common technological component. Our troubleshooting should lead us into areas of specialization in which we would accel at what we know within the confines of our skills or we would find that it is time to bring in the proper specialist to address the issue.

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  16. <toke>
    Not to flame anyone - I find the worst people to be let anywhere near a router are "system engineers". They always seem to be true believers in "get it connected" and not worry about anything else. As to the parallels with art - art doesn't just come from the traditional forms of artistic expression (painting, sculpture, music, etc.) - art can also be found in the communications field. Consider the blend of art and biochemistry in the formation and function of the mammalian brain ...
    </toke>

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  17. I'm labelled as a "network professional" with the associated selection of certifications, but ironically only last week was asked if I could add some more sockets on an electrical ring main :-D

    Seriously though, I think this boils down to the idea of "renaissance man", in so far as this term was historically applied to describe how one learned man (or woman) was thought capable of understanding the entire breadth of human knowledge at that time.

    Imho a lot of people in touch with IT are still operating on this principle which was, in the early days of IT possibly true, but is now completely beyond the capabilities of any single person due to the breadth and depth of systems and technologies.

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  18. I have never said no to any technical task that has ever been suggested for me.

    That said, the labeling of Microsoft Administrators as "Network Engineers" is a plague upon the world.

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Ivan Pepelnjak, CCIE#1354, is the chief technology advisor for NIL Data Communications. He has been designing and implementing large-scale data communications networks as well as teaching and writing books about advanced technologies since 1990. See his full profile, contact him or follow @ioshints on Twitter.