Is yesterdays IT department an endangered species?

Fifteen years ago I started professionally in the IT industry. It was a time when nerds, gurus, and geeks kept the wheels turning on a 24/7 basis, and everyone had their particular place in the team. A time when people took ownership of their role, took pride in their work, and were proud to be part of the IT industry. When you were asked what you did for a living, you would puff out your chest and proudly say I’m in IT, knowing full well that the person you were speaking to would have respect for your industry.

The question you have to ask today, however, is whether yesterdays IT department is an endangered species? Before I go any further, I’ll give you an idea of what an IT department used to be like.

In the beginning, there was a very simple structure. An I.T. manager, network/system/security/database people, software developers, and the usual helpdesk type staff. Nothing too tricky… a basic hierarchy which had proven itself to work for so many years prior. To give you a basic idea, here is a bit of a breakdown of the various roles which used to exist:

The IT Manager: They were in charge… the head honcho. They managed IT, managed the assets, and spent countless hours doing pretty reports for the executives. Their knowledge was broad, and usually they had worked their way up through the IT hierarchy and had a particular strength within IT. They would tell you stories about punch cards and tape cartridges, and would give you a pat on the back when you did a good job. When you learnt something new, or solved a particular issue, they would smile and be filled with pride. All-in-all, they earned their title and knew their stuff.

The Systems Administrator [sysadmin]: Watch your back… they knew everything there was to know about computers, networks, and peripherals. If you tried to test their knowledge, they would make you understand how much they knew until you became a blabbering mess on the floor. Cross them, and you may as well find another job. The sysadmin was a no nonsense character, and you only spoke with them if you were certain that you would not be wasting their time, nor the oxygen in their darkened cubicle.

The Security Phantoms and Network Administrators: You knew they existed.. somewhere. You had never seen them, nor heard their name uttered, but they were there. Usually they only came out late at night, and miraculously network traffic ‘just worked’. If you listened closely you could almost hear them chanting something about TCP, or IPX, or even hear them getting excited about hex characters in a packet. Dark and mysterious, but necessary at the foundation level.

Software Developers: A funny breed of people. Not necessarily part of the running of IT per se, but an essential part of IT just the same. They border between ‘real’ IT and the common user. :) They are the strange people that reply to your question by saying “Hello World”. The real programmers however had something in common with sysadmins. They also believed that user interfaces were for morons, and users have no right to touch a computer. Helpdesk Minions: Ah… the new people. Employed to be a punching bag for users and to have a phone receiver permanently attached to their head. Not only did they have to deal with whinging and whining from the users, they also had to communicate with the sysadmin, network, and security people. They couldn’t win, wouldn’t win, and would either end up back on the dole queue, or would eventually become anti-social and climb the IT ladder.

Now, you are probably wondering why I used a lot of past tense in the above, such as “they knew everything there was to know..”, or they “knew their stuff.” etc. It’s simple really… the IT industry has changed dramatically, and over the last few years I have been disgusted with the lack of knowledge, the willy-nilly throwing around of titles, and the general demise of the IT professional. It sickens, angers, and repulses me… I choose to start my rant now.

There are two positions in today’s IT department which continue to bewilder me. The IT Manager, and the self-titled sysadmin. Let’s start at the top of the hierarchy.

The modern incarnation of IT Manager, or should I say Senior IT Pretender. They are the absolute prime example of the IT professional becoming an endangered species. I truly truly feel sorry and pitiful for these people.. who wouldn’t. They have very limited, if no knowledge of IT. They hire people that have even less knowledge then them, just to ensure that their lack of knowledge is not shown up. In a lot of cases they have been put into the role as they happen to be the longest serving person in the company that knows how to use a calculator. If you offer a solution to a problem, they will more often than not think that you are trying to undermine them. They lose their temper when a solution that they have been sucked into purchasing from a third party fails, even though you expressed to them that it may not be an ideal solution. And somehow, it becomes your issue that the solution was not up to scratch?!? To top it off, they actually believe they know more than anyone else! After all, they are the IT Manager.

These leaches of society believe that a hierarchy is two tiers. They are on top, and everyone else is below them. They don’t believe in structure, don’t believe in specialisation. The one thing they do believe is that everyone should know everything. Honestly, how shallow minded and uneducated can today’s new plague of IT management be. What is discouraging about this form of manager, is that they are actually puppets to a special group of people. A special task force of highly trained social engineers of the highest degree, or more commonly known as consultants and software sales people. These people are clever, and are good at what they do. At times they can be clearly seen circling above an IT manager waiting for them to make a critical mistake. They understand the lack of knowledge in IT management, and they exploit this to the nth degree. I have nothing against these people at all, it makes sense. When monkeys are running the show in IT, all they have to do is give them a banana up front, and they will sign anything you put in front of them.

Next on the list… the modern day, self-appointed sysadmins. When I first became a sysadmin 13 years ago I was proud. It was a responsibility you earned, not just a title. You had a mentor, you listened, and you learnt. You only became a sysadmin if you knew sendmail inside out, could write meaningful scripts, read individual packets of data, configure a firewall, understand the difference between SHA1 and AES algorithms, manage SANS, program routers and switches using IOS without a GUI, configure NIS, create a jumpstart for sparcs, enable SMB to communicate with AD, recite the entire VI commands without looking at your mug, and could understand the humour in cd pub ; more beer.

Over the years the job role titles have slowly become used and abused and for some unknown reason have morphed into meaningless self-important words stringed onto a fancy looking business card. No matter where you look in the IT industry today, everyone has claimed the title of sysadmin. It seems as though it has gotten to the stage where if you get an entry level IT job, and use a computer of some form, you are a sysadmin! Even helpdesk people call themselves sysadmins these days! And since when did a Network Administrator look after Windows based servers, or manage database servers??? You have to be kidding me! A real Network Administrator used to look after LANS and WANS! It has become so absurd that it has become quite humorous. You can now simply go to a website such as and randomly generate your own title.

The lack of knowledge of this new breed of ‘sysadmin’ appals me! Mention the simplest thing like sendmail or SMB to these uneducated pretenders, and you will see them scurry off to the nearest computer, open up a web browser, and Google the term! Ask them to write a simple script for logon profiles, or to automate a process, and they will either say that it can’t be done, or suggest that we may need to involve a third party consultant. These creations of the monkeys higher in the hierarchy don’t understand how to put together a solution, which may cost ¼ of the price of a proprietary solution. They are poisoned by the same ideal from their managers… if it costs exorbitant amounts of money it must be a good product.

There are a couple of other issues which have begun to destroy the industry as we used to know it. Certification is one. The market is flooded with certification, and what was once a respected piece of paper has now become worthless. There was a time when holding an MCSE, or CCNA, or any other respectable industry certification actually meant something. It showed that not only were you good at your job, you were good enough to represent market leaders in the industry. Now, however, it seems as though holding an industry standard certification is exactly that.. standard. Another issue is proprietary software. Since when did companies start to believe that if you pay for a product, it must be a better product? The industry as a whole survived well using non-proprietary services and applications for back end solutions. Take for example solutions such as monitoring, SMTP, file services, and DNS to name just a few. Is it possible that the knowledge of modern IT department staff is so sub-standard, that they can no longer think for themselves and must rely upon bloated and expensive software? Perhaps we are starting to see a lazy subculture in our industry, which will become the future foundation of IT?

So where do we go from here? Is the current trend a map for the future of the modern IT department. Is this the end of the real IT department from yesterday, and is it possible that yesterday’s IT department is an endangered species? Is it only real IT staff that can see the demise of the industry, or are yesterday’s IT staff expecting too much from our industry? Has the day finally come that clock-watching is the way of the future, and once the 7.6 hours per day is over, IT people no longer care or self educate themselves further? Not only
am I discouraged, I am sincerely worried and scared for what the future of IT may hold.

Let’s hope that the ideal of “knowledge is power” still has a place in the future IT department.