Friday, 3 September 2010

New Skillz

Occasionally, I think back to when I first started working with PCs in the late 80s.

At that stage, there were relatively few companies made use of these and it was very much a hobby, although one that I enjoyed. I managed to get hold of some second hand equipment and by trial and error, worked out what everything was and how it worked.

In the mid 90s, I had the chance to work with computers as a job; primarily in a customer support capacity, but I also looked after the company hardware, network and server (yes we only had the one). In those days, it was considered normal that someone working in IT would have a broad range of skills and be able to turn their hand to whatever task was needed.

But in the last 10 years, we have seen a major change in the way that things work. There has been a considerable need for people to become more focussed in a specific area, whether that be database administration, programming, networking, telecoms etc. In the very big companies, they even have teams of people within these disciplines.

For the smaller shops like ours, this makes life a bit harder. We only have a couple of staff, but we still need to provide the same level of support on the newer systems. There is still an expectation that each of the IT staff has all of the relevant knowledge to instantly know how a product works, what is causing a problem, and with a wave of the magic wand, can fix it.

In the real world of course, it is completely different. In most cases we have some good general knowledge of hardware and some good experience of using a couple of products. We’ve then developed particular skills in specific areas. For example, I have had to do a lot of work with SQL server over the last couple of years, and although I wouldn’t describe myself as a DBA, I have a pretty good understanding of it. I also have had advanced networking and routing training, as well as some extra work in security.

Among the staff, we have each developed key specific skills; and we can share the work out in a way that allows us to be most effective. As a small team, we work quite closely, so still get the opportunity to broaden our skills base, probably far more than those in larger teams would be able to do. But we still have to learn those new skills and there is no question that even within a team the size of ours, there is a definite division of labour based upon speciality.

There are of course many companies that suggest we should outsource some of the work: and I can see a certain value in that. But I have not yet seen any outsourcing operation that will provide the level of support at an acceptable price that meets what we currently provide. It’s also likely that if we did outsource part of the work we do all that would then happen is that the users / management would still insist that we try to fix things for them anyway, defeating the purpose of outsourcing.

So for the moment, we just have to try to learn as much as we can, as quickly as we can (and probably as cheaply as we can). I’m looking forward to the day when we can get the plug in brain nodes that allow us to download information directly into our brains, without the pain of going through the learning process!

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