Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

Jimmy writes:

Do you, or did you ever, feel like trends in IT are really just driven by fashion and trends? With that in mind, do/did you ever find yourself worrying that your trajectory with your career is heading/headed towards obsolescence? As someone who tries to pay attention to the news, trends, and the latest updates, I sometimes find myself feeling crushed by the information, constantly worrying about keeping my skills up-to-date, but simultaneously feeling like every job outside of working for a startup or in DevOps ends in a cul-de-sac.

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Eh, sort of. IT doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though, right? All of business is kind of driven by trends. Let’s take the recent upswing in interest in DevOps, a term which has itself been around since at least 2013, and as a less-formal practice for years before that.

Prior to 2007, the word “app” didn’t really exist; Apple gave it to us. And prior to 2008, 2009 or so, mere mortals couldn’t write apps – it wasn’t until iOS 2 or 3 that we got an App Store, right? On desktop computers, people didn’t refer to apps either, even though they were clearly using them. Product cycles ran 4-5 years, deploying updates was painful and cumbersome, and operating systems and users focused on the desktop as their main interface to the computer. App(lication)s ran on the desktop, right?

Bounce to now, and nobody cares about the desktop. Apps are updated weekly, if not more often, and deployed more or less invisibly. That’s an environmental change, and it’s what made Agile more feasible, and it’s what created the demand for DevOps as a discipline. This wasn’t so much a trend for IT as it was a shift in how the world itself wanted technology to happen. IT merely responded.

Let’s maybe rephrase your question: Do you feel that, from around 2000 to 2012 or so, IT has basically unchanging and stagnant? Yeah, I do. When I look back at the level of “churn” happening in the late 1990s, the introduction of Windows 2000 was pretty much the end of major innovation and change for a long time. I think a lot of people took that as the norm, but it honestly is an aberration if you look at the whole swatch of IT history. It happened because, in large part, a ton of companies who’d never had IT suddenly had IT, but they wanted to treat it like an HVAC unit that you replace every 15 years. So the pace of change was anchored by customers.

So let’s talk about how this affects your skills.

In the Stagnant Years, a lot of people came into IT, which is great. But a lot of them didn’t come in with solid foundational skills. This is unsurprising, because companies like Microsoft, through their certification programs, were the main pushers of those skills, and they quit doing it. Remember your “Networking Fundamentals” test for your 2013 MCSE? No, you do not, because Microsoft quit requiring it or even offering training on it. That’s too bad, because having those foundational skills is what enables you to pick up more, higher-level skills, on-demand and at-need.

Take me. I don’t specialize in PowerShell, although that’s probably where you first met me. I also know Visual Basic (.NET), C#, PHP, KiXtart, Objective-C, and Python, if not a few more besides. I’m skilled in general programming and have been doing it since I was 12 or so (I ran a C-64 BBS back in the day and coded my own magazine-on-floppy-disk for a local user group). I know TCP/IP networking down to the wire level. I know that basically every Internet protocol like HTTP, SMTP, SSH, you name it, are all just gussied-up Telnet, under the hood. So I rely on those foundational skills to get me through. I can easily pick up a new language, a new networking thing (iSCSI? No problem), or whatever the moment calls for. I don’t specialize in “Exchange;” I stick my nose into everything. I can support SQL Server, SharePoint, whatever. I mean, I’m not an expert at this things, but I could get a job and quickly get much more-expert if I needed to. I’m very good at technical aptitude-level things like troubleshooting, stuff that always helps a new skill develop more quickly. And I have a strong focus on business outcomes, which means I’m valuable to businesses that don’t want IT for IT’s sake, but rather want IT to help accomplish something for the business.

My career will never be obsolete because my career is IT, not Active Directory or PowerShell or some other of-the-moment thing. And technology is all about “of the moment.” Like, remember KiXtart? Probably not, but you definitely don’t use it today. It came, had its time, and left – and although it was all I did all day, every day, at one point in my career, I’m still fine.

This is where you have to examine the actual value you bring to a business. Is your value, “I’m the one who knows where the buttons are in the Exchange console,” then you’ve got a limited shelf-life. My value isn’t tied to a product or to a technology. It’s tied to the fact that I enjoy change, I enjoy new challenges, and I enjoy moving on to do something I’ve never done before, and never looking back. My value is that I’m an engineer at heart, and given a problem I can come up with a solution. Yes, it’ll take me some time to research and investigate and prototype, but that’s what engineers do.

My biggest problem – and this has come up in more than one job, so I know it’s a real thing – is that I hate maintaining things. Give me a problem and I’ll build a solution, but then I want to hand it to someone else to maintain. I hate working on the same thing for years on end. So if you don’t hand me a new problem, I’ll usually go looking for one, like a little problem-fixing Energizer Bunny, and not everyone in every company appreciates that “initiative” on my part. I can be a little disruptive, in other words. So seeing IT start to become more varied, more dynamic, and more of-the-moment… I dig that shit.

And yeah, a lot of jobs do end up in a cul-de-sac. That’s because most companies are run really poorly. Nobody notices because it’s kind of a level playing field – most companies are run pretty poorly. IT is seen as overhead, not a strategic asset, and so IT is asked to just mind the fire instead of being asked to partner with the business and innovate. Companies are holding onto bullshit, zero-value-added technology tasks like messaging, for God’s sake, instead of focusing on the things that make the company unique, special, and competitive (never own your own utilities; focus everything you have on what makes you you). Companies who outsource IT – and I’m not talking about moving to O365 for messaging, because that’s not outsourcing; I’m talking about moving major tasks to IBM or something – have essentially “given up” on IT. So yeah, it’s not always thrills and excitement, because these companies are treating IT like a utility. But that’s okay! Because there are plenty of lower-skilled or less-motivated to fill the positions those companies need. If you’re not one of them, though, you’re going to have to work harder to find a place for yourself, and likely do that again every few years. IT itself if your career; not your current job. 

(And I don’t mean to imply that everyone working for a company like this is low-skilled or low-motivated; I know there are a lot of reasons that keep people in a job that they might not be delighted with. But I also have personally met many folks who are just happy to do whatever the job asks and then go home and play Xbox, and that’s fine, too.)

And I never feel crushed by information. I swim in it. I love it. I love learning, I love writing about what I’ve learned, and I love sharing that with other people, and doing so helps me learn even better. Sure, sometimes I have to triage and make decisions, and I’m not longer really active in the Developer world, for example, although that’s the world I started speaking at conferences in. I don’t track the SQL Server world as much, although for a while doing SQL Server consulting was a big deal for me. So you do have to pick your battles, and server infrastructure (not even desktops, because users, ugh) is my current battle. That. helps me triage the information flow.

This turned out longer than I thought 😉 but I hope it’s offered at least a useful perspective for ya.

2 thoughts on “AMA: Is IT Just the Trend of the Moment?

  1. Actually, this is gold. I appreciate you taking the time to write your thoughts out on this.

    I’ve read this a few times now to ponder it and and let it sink in, and I could relate to a lot of your engineering experiences. I think the “crushing” that I’ve felt with information is more rooted in determining how it relates to my job, and if my job is not giving me enough opportunities to explore those ideas. But then, and this is my major takeaway from your post, jobs are not careers; jobs are services that organizations pay you to use your career, but they may not expand your career. Ultimately, it’s _your_ responsibility to constantly improve your career, to do something with the flow of new information, which may mean to working harder on nights and weekends, but it’s yours, not your job’s. Ideally, you want your job to give you those opportunities to work your career as you would like, but it’s never perfect.

    Anyways, thanks again. I always appreciate your perspective.

  2. Mark says:

    At one point in my IT career, I felt the same “crushing” feeling of the seemingly overwhelming changes and trends in various directions. I’ve always been an IT generalist so I rolled with the punches, so to speak. What I grew tired of was constantly adjusting to all the new technologies. I realized that I am not like Don. I am not an engineer at heart and did not enjoy learning new systems all the time or challenging IT problems that seemed to cause me more stress. So I eventually refocused my skills and experience with IT into more of a project management skills set. That’s when I found my next calling in managing IT projects and staff. I could use my experience in the trenches of IT to act as a sort of “translator” or facilitator between business and IT to help create and manage the projects needed to push the business side forward from an IT perspective. I’m still growing and learning and facing different challenges, but they are in areas I enjoy more than I did while I was just doing IT. I would encourage others to explore other paths that may include your IT background but in something completely new outside of just strictly IT. Especially if you’re not truly the engineer type at heart. Otherwise, I completely agree with and understand where Don is coming from in his post.

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