On Titles, Certifications, and Not My Job

I’ve never con­sid­ered myself—strictly speaking—a net­work engi­neer, or any­thing in par­tic­u­lar like that.  It’s help­ful for job descrip­tions, or hir­ing, but not as a means of self-identification.  I started my career as a programmer—and had been pro­gram­ming as an ama­teur for years before that—then moved into sys­tems (Unix, early DOS, then Nov­ell, Win­dows, etc.), net­works, and now into an amal­ga­ma­tion of all of those dis­ci­plines under the aus­pices of strat­egy and management.

I don’t under­stand peo­ple who don’t want to learn to pro­gram, or about stor­age, or vir­tu­al­iza­tion.  I don’t under­stand pro­gram­mers who don’t want to know about net­works.  This “hyer-silo-ization” that’s hap­pened in the last 15 years or so is some­thing I’m still not used to, even though I osten­si­bly have to deal with it on a daily basis to make hir­ing deci­sions, task track­ing, etc.

This stems back to my roots in the com­puter world.  I started out as a young kid back in 1980 or so, teach­ing myself to pro­gram LOGO and Basic on an Apple IIc.  As time went on I picked up more lan­guages, mov­ing on to Pas­cal and C, but also expand­ing into set­ting up BBS sys­tems, toy­ing with modems and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy, and get­ting time with main­frames and the old big-iron at local uni­ver­si­ties when­ever I could get a teacher who knew some­one to slip me in under the radar.  I was fas­ci­nated by the tech­nol­ogy and all it allowed for me to do cre­atively.  Fun­da­men­tally, how­ever, I had no con­cept that I was any­thing other than really into com­put­ers and systems.

Fast-forward a few years, and at some point—and I blame the HR folks for this, mostly—people started to describe them­selves in terms of job func­tions.  It wasn’t good enough to be some­one who knew com­put­ers, or could learn new tech­nol­ogy quickly, or could pro­gram in a cer­tain lan­guage or what­ever.  Now you had to “be” some­thing.  You had to be a soft­ware engi­neer, or a net­work admin­is­tra­tor, or some other thing.  Then it fur­ther broke down by OS, and the cer­ti­fi­ca­tions came.

Now we have peo­ple who are the gate­keep­ers, and if you don’t have a cer­tain cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, or a cer­tain set of very spe­cific job titles, or haven’t banged out a min­i­mum accept­able num­ber of Binford-6100 installs, you’re not qual­i­fied to do <insert job title here>.  So peo­ple pur­sue titles, and cer­ti­fi­ca­tions, and expe­ri­ence with what­ever they think the recruiters are look­ing for—but noth­ing more.

The soft­ware folks claim no knowl­edge about net­works, net­work folks claim no knowl­edge of sys­tems, sys­tems claim no knowl­edge of data­bases.  On and on the story rolls, cre­at­ing a giant ball of not-my-problem as it goes.  Fur­ther tech­nol­ogy devel­op­ments con­tinue the cycle; things like SDN cre­ate even more fric­tion and sep­a­ra­tion… one more thing to not know any­thing about.

The first job I ever had as a pro­fes­sional in the com­puter world was to build out a net­work and develop some soft­ware for a com­pany.  These were the heady days of tech­nolo­gies with names like vampire-taps, before every­thing turned into a “dongle-gate” fiasco to be avoided at all costs.  But I digress.

I can imag­ine the hor­ror some of you are now feel­ing; won­der­ing what’s wrong with a world where you’d hire some­one to build a net­work and develop soft­ware for it.  Can you imag­ine the fur­ther hor­ror of telling you that I later on—at that same company—developed a web page for them, back before most peo­ple even had AOL or Com­puServe, let alone the “real” Internet?

I don’t tell you this to tout my own back­ground or make myself feel old.  I tell you this because the key dif­fer­ence between then and now—at least in my mind—is that we in the indus­try used to be prob­lem solvers.  Used to.

I don’t know if it’s the influx of money—people in col­lege decid­ing that law school is too hard but this com­puter gig is pay­ing well—or some other fac­tor, but some­where along the way we became obsta­cles to prob­lem solv­ing.  We became entrenched in an us vs. them men­tal­ity, and we stopped think­ing of how to say “yes”. How to say “yes” to solv­ing a prob­lem using any tech­nol­ogy avail­able.  How to say “yes” to learn­ing to pro­gram or script if that’s what is nec­es­sary.  We stopped being will­ing to use any and all tools to get the job done and instead we became divas, only will­ing to use the tech­nol­ogy that we decided was wor­thy of our time, or we decided was use­ful to our careers.

I’m here to tell you that the indus­try is chang­ing again.  It doesn’t mat­ter what silo you think you’re in, the indus­try is chang­ing for all of us.  Spe­cial­ties will still exist—things we’re “bet­ter” at than others—but silos will not per­sist as they are today for very much longer.  You are either going to be one of the peo­ple will­ing to learn, adapt, and say “yes” to business-enablement, or you’ll be the part of the indus­try we don’t acknowledge—the crusty relic in the back room that nobody wants to talk to and is even­tu­ally, and uncer­e­mo­ni­ously, replaced.

  • Dave

    One of my ear­lier job inter­views was as a Net­work Admin. The hir­ing guy asked me if I was inter­ested in pro­gram­ming. I have some back­ground in BASIC and PASCAL. I said “Heck yeah!” He dis­in­ter­est­edly looked at my resume and informed me that in his expe­ri­ence, net­work admin­is­tra­tors were not inter­ested in pro­gram­ming. He then dis­missed me. End of interview.

  • http://twitter.com/SomeClown @SomeClown

    Unfor­tu­nately, hir­ing man­agers are a big part of the prob­lem, and I’ve seen or expe­ri­enced what you describe quite often.

    I will say that, inter­nally here, I hire based on apti­tude and depth/breadth of expe­ri­ence. My DBA is a old Unix pro­gram­mer, my main ERP admin is a devel­oper in his own right, and all of us have some abil­ity (varies a bit) to code and help one another cross posi­tion. I run a lean team and can’t afford to have divas, per­son­ally. I still jump in to change toner car­tridges in a printer if I hap­pen to be next to it and notice a prob­lem. No sacred cows here.

    My blog post applies as much or more to hir­ing man­agers as it does to engi­neers, admins, whatever.