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The erosion of IT's middle class

Evolve your career with the changing face of IT, or risk getting left behind

As new technologies continue to emerge in the network, the need for highly skilled IT administration resources will grow just as well.

However, the advent of Software Defined Networking (SDN), cloud systems, and orchestration software means many mundane tasks will become automated. If your day is mainly made up of those mundane tasks, then you should be worried about the future of your career.

In the near future, IT teams will of course need high-level engineers, but there will still be a need for lower-skilled resources. This emerging IT environment, however, threatens those in the middle-tier IT ranks.

Increasing complexity in IT environments

In the recent past, enterprise networks have been fairly simple. A core data center contained the internet connectivity, and that data center contained all the servers running the corporate applications. There was a corporate network and WAN, and the IP routing topology was fairly stable (unless new sites were added or moved).

Now we have server virtualization, more functionality and configurability within the hypervisor (Network Functions Virtualization), and layer-2 data center interconnection protocols tunneling traffic between data centers. Now enterprises have a completely eroded internet perimeter, cloud-based data centers, remote virtual workers, and virtual machines that move from on-premise to cloud-data center.

How this affects the IT super star

This increased complexity requires IT staff to be multi-disciplined in order to be effective at their jobs. No longer can server administrators get away with being be familiar with the operating system alone. They need to have mastered server virtualization, understand how the services operate in a virtualized environment, how applications are secured with firewalls, and how network virtualization connects those applications. Network administrators not only need to know about IP routing protocols and spanning tree, but they must also know about network virtualization (VRFs, VDCs), layer-2 data center interconnect protocols (OTV, TRILL, VXLAN, NVGRE, STT, VPLS), Quality of Service (QoS), how firewalls operate, and how networking functions can now be placed within the hypervisor (VMware NSX, Cisco Nexus 1000V, virtual load balancing, virtual firewalls). While many IT organizations are still heavily siloed into separate teams, troubleshooting events often bring these groups together. Unfortunately, when these groups get together to resolve an issue, the proverbial “finger pointing” starts while everyone digs in to defend their turf. Organizations that are more effective have interdisciplinary groups that cross these boundaries to help break down barriers and foster cooperation. Mature organizations with cross-functional teams and better processes realize increased operational availability, lower downtime, and faster response to business needs.

To get to this level, the IT staff needs to have many years of experience and a desire to learn about a broad range of technologies. IT staff need to be aware of the end-to-end IT environment, follow ITIL practices, able to traverse the full OSI stack, and comfortable dealing with hardware and software. Those with a programming background and an understanding of applications, operating systems, databases and storage systems, as well as networking and security, will have the most job security.

The IT middle class

Many enterprise organizations do not see a need to have these IT super stars, and instead staff their teams with middle-tier administrators. Enterprise organizations have historically needed a middle-tier of skilled resources because these resources fit the continually reduced IT budget. These individuals have been the first line of support and help troubleshoot problems. They were the staff that operated the current infrastructure. They handle the configuration, maintenance, and troubleshooting of the IT infrastructure. This staff handled day-to-day moves/adds/changes.

Now, most IT organizations spend 75% of their time maintaining the IT systems that have been purchased and only 25% of the time working on new projects that help evolve the business. It’s no wonder companies want to divest themselves of the physical IT infrastructure that consumes so much CAPEX and move to cloud-based IT services that use only OPEX money.

Here are just some of the mundane day-to-day tasks that could potentially be automated:

  • Virtual machine/virtual server maintenance
  • Patching servers and systems
  • Firewall rule changes
  • Simple network changes like configuring Ethernet switch ports
  • Assigning server connections to specific VLANs
  • Cutting and pasting configuration commands from a template

Over time, organizations will have fewer reasons to keep middle-tier to mid-level administrators. These mid-tier staff helped maintain the on-premise infrastructure, apply patches, upgrade software, and other operation tasks that need to be completed during a change window. As more of these tasks are automated and outsourced, these staff member’s future is tenuous at best.

The IT lower class

There are also many IT professionals who have not been in the industry very long or are still just learning about how systems work. IT work is pretty good, as far as jobs go. It’s mostly indoor work, not that dirty, doesn’t require heavy lifting, doesn’t require employees to dress particularly fancy, and allows for flexible work hours. Sometimes you have to work weekends, but then there are other days when you can leave work early if things are running smoothly.

Lower-tier staff needs to perform the following IT tasks:

  • Racking and stacking of hardware
  • Helping end-users with desktop or mobile device issues
  • Installation of cables or wireless access point maintenance
  • Replacing hard drives in storage arrays
  • Physical-layer troubleshooting

These may not be the most glamorous tasks, but they are a way to get a foot in the door. I remember when I was young having to gather up all the extra power cords that weren’t being used and put them into boxes. I would crawl around in the ceiling tiles running Twinax cables. I would clean out dot-matrix printers and computer fans with a vacuum. We all have to start somewhere, and this is where many of us began our careers.

Erosion of the IT middle class

The IT industry is transforming. Organizations are looking to move their systems to the cloud and change the physical nature of their compute, storage, and networking resources. Corporations are moving rapidly to virtualize these components and try to speed up the provisioning of new IT systems. The focus is on rapidly deploying or changing the applications, operating systems, servers, storage, and security to make the IT systems more agile and keep up with the rapidly changing business world.

Soon, enterprises will have Software Defined Networking (SDN) systems and other controllers that define policies for how applications will operate. Companies will use software to define the policies with which applications will request resources from the network, and how resources are elastically scaled to meet demand at a moment’s notice.

To be able to deploy these orchestration and automation systems, organizations need top-tier IT resources. IT organizations will need to invest in data center architects and IT practitioners who know how to get the end-to-end network to facilitate the communication between mission-critical applications that may be located in a combination of on-premise and cloud resources. These top-tier resources are going to be the ones setting up these new technologies that others in the company will use to request IT services. These are some of the tasks that these high-end resources will be performing:

  • Creating the IT self-service provisioning portal
  • Writing the Cisco UCS Director provisioning workflow scripts
  • Configuring VMware vCenter Orchestrator or vCenter Operations Management Suite
  • Configuring the SDN controller (plus some Java or Python coding) for advanced application requirements
  • Deploying an OpenStack system for automation of public and/or private clouds
  • Configuring a Cisco ACI Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC) for End-Point Groups (EPGs), Application Network Profiles and Contracts
  • Configuring the storage replication between on-premise and cloud-based storage systems

If you are a mid-level IT staff member, you will need to improve your skills to move into that top tier and preserve your place in an IT organization. If you fail to make that transition, then you are likely to suffer “brain drain” and you will move into that lower tier.

If you have spent a lot of time in the IT industry and you are just now reaching that middle-tier skill set, your career is at a crossroads. You can choose to stay where you are, but in doing so you risk being made obsolete by a robot or Java/Python script.

If this scares you, then you should invest in your professional development, learn to be cross-functional, and try to learn how to control the software components that will make you more efficient at your job.

However, if you are at the lower tiers of the IT food chain, you can rest assured that your “smart-hands” will continue to be needed.

As Judge Smails in the movie Caddyshack said so eloquently, “Well, the world needs ditch diggers too."

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