Remember that guy you knew in college who was working on his fifth or sixth degree with no plans to stop? At some point the idea of real work must have terrified him, and instead what appealed to him was a continual state of learning. If you have the funding to master five or six disciplines, and perhaps not the ambition to get going in any one of them, why not stay and explore the next one?
But if you work in IT, chances are you did not stay in college for more than a few areas of study, and since you entered the work force, your future options dwindled down to two: become a specialist (deep thinking in a singular discipline, but not too broad) or become a generalist (broad thinking across multiple disciplines, not too deep in any one of them).
Managers tend to start their careers as specialists who do so well they are promoted to manager, where their career shifts and they become generalists. From time to time they dabble in a particular area of study to speak the lingo, use the right buzz words and understand what is coming, but the role they play is inherently generalist, as they are forced to deal with a number of topics beyond the realm of any one particular area of study.
We tend to associate the title “architect” as being the specialist who is deep in an area we are forced to contend with. Examples might include, “We need to hire a network architect, or a database architect, or a software architect …” the list continues. When we do this, we have certain expectations. We are looking for the “guru” who can solve our network problems or database problems or security problems—wherever the skill set was that caused us to hire this specialist. If our new employee cannot solve our problems, we begin the search for another who can solve them.
But the candidate has expectations as well: The network guy may have a little knowledge about databases but does not expect to have to perform at the level of his peers in that discipline. If we hire a network guy and then ask him to do everything in every other discipline, we are the ones out of line and he will likely flee our employment in haste, calling us crazy on the way out.
The Cultural ‘Frankenstein’
To create a true master of the multiple disciplines that exist within IT would require creating a modern Frankenstein in networks, servers, operating systems, storage, database, middleware, software and mobility. And, of course, this list is not limited to one expression of each type, but indeed multiple expressions of each type. So for example, our database discipline likely includes deep expertise in Oracle, DB2, SQL Server, NoSQL, MySQL … you name it. If it is popular or relevant to our current stack, our Frankenstein must know that one.
As DevOps has gained in popularity, we have conflated certain aspects of it and driven ourselves off the highway of logic. Too often, proponents have taken the concept of co-location from the agile beginnings of DevOps and applied it to the operational endings of DevOps. Taking down silos is mistakenly applied to co-locating IT operational staff. This conflation occurs billed as the panacea it once was to co-locating business staff, with the developers producing products for them. In the strictly agile context, this works well. Applying it to IT personnel on the back half of delivery is the least effective means of creating Frankensteins. Co-location is a good way to share ideas, from user back and forth to innovator. In general, sharing ideas between a network guy (with limited interests outside his discipline) and middleware guy (who could care less how the network is configured in detail) has limited success.
These operational IT disciplines do interact, but only as they have need, which is significantly less than having to sit in the cube 4 feet away from a counterpart involved in a differing discipline. Co-location is not the cure for breaking down silos or increasing communication—common backbones are. Imagine the example of the medical profession: A hospital provides the common backbone for the neurosurgeon, the orthopedic surgeon and the heart surgeon. These disciplines are inherently separate, and if you have a particular illness, you are going to want the one who specializes in the thing you need done. While each doctor understands general health aspects, they specialize for a reason—a reason you want and need—when it is your time to seek help.
The hospital provides the common facility, the common support staff, the common electronic systems and tools we use. Our medical records are stored in one place, no matter what type of treatment we seek, so each specialist has to enter them there and can read them there. But distinctions by practice remain. There is a special surgical floor for heart surgeries, where they do not conduct orthopedic work or neurosurgical work. The tools may be slightly different; the medical journals are. The training is different. The experience is different. And none of these skills transfer by osmosis of co-location if you put all three doctors in one central cubical cluster. It takes years to get where they are. The same is true of our IT specialists.
If instead of co-location we looked more at common systems for moving, documenting and articulating change. If we gave limited access to our DevOps tooling to the specialists, confined to the niche they have expertise in, then instead of co-location we could have remote-work-concurrence. Experts from all over the country could work on the movement of change without ever physically seeing each other, but with full visibility into what is happening in real time through a common lens. Network operations center (NOC) personnel remain physically in the NOC, but can see the entire stack from that location and change only their portion as changes are required from there.
It is the common backbone of DevOps systems that breaks down the silos of change transparency and change participation. Prior to DevOps we were all using different tools to move change and track change. With DevOps we can begin to articulate change and document it, in the same tool or interface. Meaningful access is granted only to the portions of tools and only where it is needed. Database guys have full access to that platform and nobody else does (other than to see it). The same model works for every other specialty. And before you know it, you have a concert—or rather a symphony of moving parts—instead of disjointed sounds no one can comprehend.
Organizations that hold to the idea that staff will become Frankensteins, equipped with deep skills in all areas because they share cubicle clusters, would do better buying lotto tickets. Where the culture will require attention is in demonstrating to the impacted teams why participating in the common backbone approach has merit for each of them. For engineers who have never had to use “something different” before, this takes work, but is the real win.
When complete, what has truly happened is a conversion to a culture of unity. The work of the genius is still protected in this method; in fact, it is amplified as now it is visible to the entire organization. So even the prima donnas should be happy with the approach. And the ability to orchestrate change never will have been so high, with so much real-time interaction, as after the embrace of a common backbone of DevOps systems. This should offer executives new insights into product creation and evolution. In this sense, the cultural changes reach from top to bottom of the organization, and they are achievable.
To continue the conversation, feel free to contact me.