I was recently having lunch with an IT Director who was interviewing for a Python programmer to enhance a custom marketing application that was quickly becoming key to his organization’s growth. While finding resumes through the multitude of today’s recruiters and staffing agencies was not a problem, he did admit he was having a different problem while interviewing candidates: He had no idea what questions to ask to gauge the knowledge or capability of a python programmer (or any other programmer for that matter). He and I spent the rest of the lunch talking about “Hyper Specialization” and how it is affecting the IT delivery landscape.
Hyper Specialization is the concept that productivity gains are achieved through division of work into smaller tasks with more specialized workers. Thanks to its complexity and criticality to every aspect of our lives, technology is at the forefront of facing this exaggerated hyper specialization.
The old ‘Software Developer’ has morphed into Designer, Programmer, Tester and Support engineer. The old ‘Network Manager’ has grown into Network Architect, Wireless Administrator, Firewall Administrator, VLAN Manager and Security Monitoring engineer. As additional functionality and technological capabilities expand, so does the need for specialized expertise to take advantage of newer capabilities and manage the complexity. Add to that the level of specialization required to effectively operate specific IT toolsets across those technologies and it definitely becomes a weighty problem.
So how are IT departments dealing with it? Not well from what I have observed. While there are many influencing factors, there are a few approaches I’m seeing as hyper specialization is playing out across IT organizations large and small:
- Challenging the existing staff to learn more, do more and take on additional responsibility. This is a fairly common approach given today’s economic conditions. The Desktop ‘guy’ now handles encryption, anti-virus, PC backup & restore, warranty tracking, licensing, printer configuration, troubleshooting, etc. While this is an efficient short-term fix, eventually resources effectively become “a mile wide and an inch deep” handling a lot more things but none with any extensive depth of expertise.
- Hire for specialization. This is a challenging approach for most organizations mainly due to costs. While the technologies and tools are getting more specialized, the tasks requiring those technologies and tools are generally more sporadic and less frequent. For example, an organization might need to do a detailed vulnerability security scan of its entire infrastructure every 6 months. Unfortunately keeping an expert on the latest vulnerability scanning tools on staff means a lot of time of idle time between configuring, running and interpreting those periodic scans. Naturally management wants to give the resource other duties to keep productivity up and in doing so ultimately leads us back to scenario 1 above.
- Outsource specialization as needed. This seems to be the direction that many organizations are embracing. Since many tasks in IT require “expertise on demand” it makes sense. Need a router a configured? Have a Cisco Certified Network Engineer remote-in and set it up. Need an encrypted security solution for your mobile devices? Have a service provider remotely set-up, register and manage the devices (encryption, apps, updates, etc.) What makes this approach effective is paying for expertise and only when it is needed. This not only improves IT service levels as it gives the internal staff less to do and worry about, but also leverages real expertise since the provider likely performs those functions for multiple organizations and is thus deeply experienced and current on the toolsets.
While there is not a singular answer, as we finished our lunch together we both agreed that the world is changing. As IT industry professionals, the big paradigm shift is that we are moving from managing large IT departments performing many functions to managing many functions across a variety of expert providers. A big key to success in this hyper specialization era will lie in how we can effectively manage expertise across vendor providers, coordinate their activities and ensure that we match duties to skilled expertise. Unfortunately, it is becoming clearer and clearer that as we spread resources thinner and thinner with additional specialized responsibilities service levels can and do suffer rather noticeably.