The Commoditization of the IT Professional (or is there a new Black Art?)

A recent gathering of friends (a group of IT gray-hairs, artists, and lawyers) had got me thinking about IT as a profession, and the development of the industry since I got involved 20 years ago. The question posed to the group was about whether we would recommend our current professions to our children. This query, a few others, and perhaps one Liberty Ale too many had started me down the track of over-analyzing the state of IT today. I suppose I am both proud and terrified at the same time.

First, the goodness. As an industry participant, IT has come a long way. Collectively, we have successfully lobbied to become more than just a cost center. The ‘nerds in the back room’ have become intertwined with the business. IT now facilitates both cost savings and revenue generation. IT is the driving force and enabler of employee empowerment, productive mobility, and instantaneous communication. IT run systems facilitate negotiations, analyze deals and execute trades.

Well done, everyone. A big pat on the back to us all.

Before I start sharing the negatives, I should let you know that I still have faith in the future of IT. Skip to the end if you don’t care for the doom and gloom.

What scares me most about IT today is what I have always called the ‘commoditization of the IT professional’. Personally, I blame this all on the ‘dot com’ era hiring frenzy that allowed anyone who could install a mouse under Windows to be branded a ‘system administrator’. As sysadmin titles transitioned to that of IT Manager, we started to lose some of the industrious, maverick spirit that made the console jockeys of old both revered and magical.

Now, I am not saying that all of the junior folks out there need to learn the way I did — by fixing superblocks with nothing more than a hex editor and a pot of coffee, or by wrestling a printcap file into submission because some bonehead ordered a printer that didn’t speak postscript (PCL? Ugh!). It would be nice, however if certain concepts were understood without having to resort to web searches of old Usenet posts. Why are topics like the effect of increased I/O on the various subsystems of a server not comprehended? Where has the art of system tuning gone? Sometimes throwing hardware at a performance issue is the correct answer — but when?

Yet I remain hopeful. The ancient ‘black arts’ are still practiced. Every day I get to speak with people who are doing some very magical things, but now with the Splunk platform. They are extending Splunk to places I have never imagined, and solving problems that are unique to their own businesses. I see enterprising individuals doing some amazing things with search commands and Splunk reports. Some of this is proprietary of course, but a lot of it has been built upon applications available in Splunkbase today.

So, to answer the original question posed — would I recommend a career in IT to my kids? The simple answer: Hell No. I don’t need the competition.

Want to relive your glory days? Send me your favorite sysadmin spell from the old days and I will do a golden oldies post. For extra credit, show me how you can accomplish (or avoid) the same thing today using Splunk. Immortality awaits!

Bob Fox

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