Adapt to survive: IT generalist to IT specialist

It’s no secret that most businesses today are heavily reliant on their IT department. In fact, SolarWinds’ recently conducted a two-part series of IT Pro Value surveys in connection with IT Professionals Day.

The first survey explores UK business end users’ attitudes and opinions about IT professionals and the technology they support; and the second, highlights how valued IT professionals feel from a global perspective.

The UK end user study found that 70 per cent of employees thought that if their company’s IT department went on holiday for a month, there would be a greater impact on their daily work life than if their company’s executive leadership team did the same. Furthermore, the research found that nearly a third (29 per cent) of end users believe one day’s work would take an additional business day, or longer, to complete if they didn’t have the technology support of IT professionals.

The research highlights that the IT department is a necessity for employees, but also has the potential to be detrimental to the day-to-day running of the business if certain IT policies aren’t in place. However, despite being a hugely valuable part of any company, the survey found that IT departments aren’t getting the credit or recognition they deserve, with 62 per cent of IT pros globally only feeling moderately valued by their employer, and a further 27 per cent feeling only slightly valued, or not valued at all.

Because businesses rely so heavily on IT departments, it’s surprising that IT pros aren’t feeling valued by their colleagues, especially as their role is becoming increasingly complicated. Today, it’s never been more important for them to prove themselves. In order to be successful, IT pros need to have a broad understanding of the business; including everything from a grasp of finance to issues surrounding compliance. This means that they not only need to be able to keep the IT infrastructure working, but also stay abreast of new technologies coming to market, the business direction, where support is needed, and most importantly how to do all of this as efficiently as possible.

Changing face of the IT pro

Over the last decade IT has become faster, cheaper and enabled businesses to do more than has previously been possible. Traditional IT services have completely transformed to include technologies such as hybrid cloud and anything-as-a-service (XaaS); all powered by software-defined data centres (SDDC); and using various OpenStack and container technologies. In short, no industry is moving as fast as technology is evolving. All this makes it vital for IT pros to keep up with the changing IT landscape if they are to stay relevant.

However, in today’s IT department, because technology has evolved so much, there is no room for the IT generalists, which means they are at risk of being pushed out unless they adapt. In its global survey results, SolarWinds found that in fact 10 per cent of IT professionals surveyed felt that their skill set was not diverse enough to encompass IT’s growing responsibilities.

It’s therefore imperative that in parallel to IT departments getting leaner and being faced with doing more with less, IT pros need to prove their value and demonstrate a tangible ROI to justify their position. In today’s IT landscape the best way to do this is by transforming themselves into IT specialists.

So what is an IT specialist?

IT specialists are IT pros with a deep knowledge of one discipline. Some would argue against this, countering that only being able to offer one area of expertise would be quite limiting for an IT pro. The reality however, is that being a specialist is actually seen as a great strength.

SolarWinds research uncovered that the majority of UK IT pros want their employers to value their business impact above all else, specifically their commitment to the overall improvement of the business (29 per cent) and their role in ensuring the business on the whole runs smoothly (25 per cent). And this is where being an IT specialist comes into play. It helps transition IT pros from being seen as a generalist, to being seen as an asset, because they will be the only IT pro with a particular knowledge set – be it about an application, programming language or the network – and more importantly the go to person who knows how to ‘fix it’ should a technical issue arise.

Likewise, business units will rely on specialist skills to deliver product differentiation, so it will be impossible for employees not to see the impact the IT pro is having on the business. As they will not just be demonstrating ROI within the IT department, but also proving to be a vital asset when it comes to generating additional revenue. This will help caveat the biggest global concern that 48 per cent of IT pros have about job security – company leadership not understanding the importance of IT.

Even IT specialists still need to adapt

It’s essential that once an IT pro has found and mastered a particular technological niche that they don’t become complacent. Technology moves so quickly that what can be seen as a new and innovative technology one minute, can just as easily become old, slow and outdated the next.

If an IT specialist doesn’t keep up with the times, then they can very quickly go from being one of the strongest members of the team to one of the weakest. The way to prevent this is to keep evolving and learning, staying abreast of technological developments and keeping one step ahead of the changes. My fellow SolarWinds Head Geek, Thomas LaRock, states it so well when he says that IT professionals need to learn to pivot in their careers.

While business and IT leaders continue to make decisions on technology and processes, the onus is on IT pros to understand what knowledge and skills they possess, and what skills they need to add to their arsenal of IT know-how.

Whether an IT pro is a generalist or a specialist, they need to learn like their careers depend on it, because eventually they will.

Kong Yang, Head Geek, SolarWinds