IT departments used to be comprised of specialists. Some were systems admins while others were developers, DBAs, or network engineers. While those and other traditional IT roles still exist, the mix of IT professionals continues to change as organizations move further into the cloud, implement higher levels of automation, and become more intelligent with the use of AI and machine learning.
"IT roles are becoming broader because many disparate aspects of IT are converging," said Sounil Yu, CISO-in-residence at YL Ventures. "For example, a good SRE needs a solid combination of networking, operating system, and programming experience. In the past, you might have found individual specialists for each of these roles. However, in the modern IT environment, the convergence of various technologies and operating models (such as the cloud) have forced the convergence of relevant skill sets into roles that require a broader range of expertise."
Changes in the IT department aren't just caused by technology itself, however. Modern business models require IT and the business at large to work collaboratively across functions. To do that, more IT professionals need a broader base of knowledge than they've traditionally had to facilitate more productive discussions with others inside and outside the IT department. In fact, much of what's happening in IT departments is driven by business competitiveness trends such as digital transformation.
Technology trends that are broadening IT roles
Cloud is an obvious facilitator of change in the IT department because if an organization isn't managing all of its infrastructure in-house anymore then it likely needs fewer people in traditional positions and more people with cloud expertise.
"My take is the people who have been most affected are the folks in production engineering because they're the ones who simultaneously have to figure out how to move out of the proprietary infrastructure into the cloud and simultaneously figure out how to move into a continuous deployment DevOps world," said Clyde Seepersad, SVP and general manager of training & certification at The Linux Foundation. "[T]he infrastructure for deploying has been revolutionized and the flow of code into deployment has been revolutionized."
In the software development realm, the DevOps engineer role has emerged to help facilitate more effective DevOps practices.
"One of our most popular exams right now is Kubernetes for Developers, which would have been unthinkable five years ago. Why would a developer even want to know about the infrastructure for delivery?" said Seepersad. "Of course, they want to know [that] because it matters how you write your cloud native service."
Another trend impacting the potential breadth of IT roles is automation. While the concept isn't new, it's being applied in more areas of IT now including DevOps, infrastructure provisioning, data pipelines, the help desk, and more. The time saved enables IT professionals to spend less time doing rote, repetitive tasks, and more time on higher value tasks such as innovation, incremental improvements and attacking the dreaded backlog and technical debt.
Meanwhile, CIOs have had to become increasingly business savvy as the business world becomes increasingly digital. They also have to stay current on the exploding number of technology areas including cybersecurity and AI. In fact, the pressure on CIOs has become so great that many C-suites now include relatively new titles such as Chief Digital Officer, Chief Data Officer, Chief Analytics Officer and Chief Information Security Officer. Those roles may report to the CIO or they may be peers. In some companies, the CIO may report to the Chief Digital Officer because the former is considered old school and the latter is considered more modern and agile.
"[T]he more innovative technology leaders are going to want to have some responsibility for digital and what I think will happen over the next 5 years is the Chief Digital Officer will go the way of the Chief eCommerce Officer," said Marc Lewis, CEO of executive recruiting firm Leadership Capital Group. "CEOs need to be careful not to get rid of their more classic CIO/CTO types in favor of a Chief Digital Officer because all of a sudden, they may find themselves in a crisis like JetBlue a number of years ago when they suddenly found that their systems got totally overwhelmed."
Why having specialists is also important
Some companies have rebranded their developers as "full-stack developers," "DevOps engineers" or "site reliability engineers" but a change in title only does little to affect organizational change. Other businesses are mindfully upskilling their talent and hiring the talent they lack because they realize the combination of skills they possess is far more important to the company's success than the combination of titles.
"There is a push to make as many of your IT employees as close to full stack as possible, but within that they have decided to specialize in certain areas," said Sunil Kanchi, CIO and chief investment officer at digital transformation strategy and solutions provider UST. "I like to look at it as an inverted pyramid [where] you have broad experience but as the depth increases, they become specialized in certain parts of it."
A similar concept is that of "T-shaped" IT professionals who possess both a depth of knowledge in a particular area and some knowledge of other areas that enables them to communicate and collaborate with others in the IT department more effectively.
"We have some specialists who have deep knowledge of a particular domain [such as networking] because now you're talking employees' data, vendors' data, those types of things, but then we also see roles that traverse a broader domain such as developers who need to understand API management and infrastructure as a service," said Cathy Southwick, CIO of storage solution provider Pure Storage. "We also need people who have a broader perspective than just the technology because they're trying to work across many different organizations to figure out and connect the dots between the different organizations so it's almost having a really strong understanding of business process, business enablement and how business data is used and consumed."
Similarly, those working with cloud need to understand the economics of it to avoid massive cost overruns.
How to approach your career if you're not sure what to do
One of the biggest regrets seasoned IT professionals tend to have is failing to understand the wealth of career paths that are open to them. To address this important obstacle, The Linux Foundation now offers a Certified IT Associate program for those who are new to the high-tech industry or considering an IT career as an administrator or engineer. It provides a basic overview of operating systems, software application installation and management, hardware installation, use of the command line and basic programming, basic networking functions and security best practices. Exposure to the various areas can help students make more informed career decisions.
Similarly, Pure Storage makes a point of rotating IT professionals into different positions, so they gain a broader base of knowledge and experience. Usually, this kind of well-rounded training tends to be reserved for Ivy Leaguers with business degrees who are being groomed for future CEO positions. However, even at the lower levels it benefits the individual and the company.
"There are lots of opportunities. You have to be very open-minded and willing to try different things, so you are able to understand how they fit together," said Pure Storage's Southwick. "If you want to be a cloud engineer or focus on the network [you can do that,] but we are seeing that the individuals who have been willing to try and do lots of different kinds of functions become more valuable to a company because [they] now have the different aspects of what it takes to run technology or introduce new technology into a company."
Today's IT professionals are wise to understand technology domains outside their own areas of expertise so they can communicate and collaborate with others more effectively. The broader knowledge base can also serve as the foundation for a vertical or horizontal move within the organization as the business and its requirements change.
Perhaps the most important skill any professional can possess today is the desire and commitment to learn continuously. After all, what one does today, why, and how will surely change tomorrow.