September 16, 2013
The profession of system administration is maturing. Slowly, yes, but even over the past ten years, I can see progress from where we were. We might not all agree on the answers, but we can at least agree on some of the problems, and that's a good thing.
There is an excellent Google Group called ops-education devoted to discussing all manner of education, training, and learning as it applies to IT Operations (famous lately as the Ops in DevOps).
Avleen Vig, who (and I don't say this lightly) rocks, started a thread titled "Not everyone needs a college degree". In it was the link to a blog entry on the GSElevator blog called Meet Jack the Plumber/Philosopher. This is a long, if well written blog entry that is probably worth your time to read, but when boiled down essentially says "Lots of college-educated people have jobs which don't require college-level training, but the people hiring for those positions seem to think they do. It's probably not a good idea to spend the time and effort on college if it's not going to be used for your career".
In his post, Avleen says,
This is something I've voiced very passionately before, and the sentiment seems to be catching on (slowly).
Operations is a skilled trade, and perfectly fits this model:
- Generally well compensated
- No shortage of jobs
- Not really cheap to get started, but that's mostly due to lack of apprenticeships
According to the plumber/philosopher article:
A skilled tradesperson is simply a person who works in a skilled trade. Licensed plumbers, electricians, mechanics, insulators and drywall installers are all great examples of skilled tradespeople. A skilled tradesperson typically spends time, following high school, in an apprenticeship program and when it is complete, earns a license in his or her trade.
When reading Avleen's post, and the linked blog entry, I had some cognitive dissonance, because even though what he says is correct, there was this nagging notion of doubt in my mind of the idea. I'm not used to disagreeing with anything Avleen says, but even after rereading it, I feel like there's some sort of subsurface complication that makes the concept…not wrong, exactly, but…short sighted?
If you have tried to hire anything above an entry-level system administrator lately, or if you know someone who has, or if you have been job searching for Operations positions, then you know that the positions that are the most lucrative are those which are the most senior and which seek expert-level generalists. The so-called "full stack" admin who can do almost anything at any layer of the stack - or at least, pick it up quickly enough for critical production needs.
These senior expert level positions aren't just more common, they're staying open longer. I know multiple people who have had senior level positions open for years, and who are unable to get people to fill the role. I don't think I'm unique in being aware of these kinds of positions.
It's a common meme in media today that bachelors degrees are the new high school diploma. As the plumber/philosopher article discusses, there is a glut of degree-holding individuals out of work or under employed, and that trend certainly contributes to the notion, but as that MSNBC article states, certain roles are now requiring college degrees when previously one wasn't requested.
There is, no doubt, some degree of societal pressure to fill roles with degree-holding individuals. Given a choice between two relatively equal people, one of which holds a degree while the other does not, no hiring manager would have a defensible position by choosing the person who doesn't have a degree.
I suspect, though, that in some fields, particularly the STEM fields, there's another aspect to this arms race. As a species, we have continually been pushing the limits of our knowledge, and in order to keep up, we need children to learn more, faster, and earlier than they did. I remember in kindergarten 25ish years ago that we weren't expected to know the alphabet. Each day at the beginning of the year, we had an inflatable letter outside of the classroom that we had to go find, as a class, that we could then learn about. Earlier today, I was reading through some preschool books with my three year old nephew, who already knows most of the alphabet and the sounds that the letters make because of the daycare that he attends is functioning as what kindergarten was to me.
The science that we're performing at the highest levels has taken, in some cases, a lifetime to master, and even that was done while standing on the shoulders of giants. The timespan needs to be shortened and the learning curve needs to accelerate if we're to keep increasing our knowledge and expanding our capabilities.
I am sure that some of the job roles that didn't used to require a degree now legitimately do, in part because of an increase in the sophistication of the role, and in part the increase of the body of knowledge in the field. As the applied knowledge of a role increases, the importance of structured education of the people filling that role also increases.
To put it another way, if you only ever have blacksmiths teaching new blacksmiths, you wind up with blacksmiths who are the same as the ones before them. The only changes that get passed down are the individual idiosyncrasies of the mentors. Some of these may be helpful, and some may be harmful, but in a strict mentorship model, there's no institutional curriculum to bring the body of work up to a mutually agreed-upon level.
Contrast this to most modern professions, where the profession itself, through agencies established for this purpose, leverage their accumulated political clout to affect change on behalf of the profession. If you want to sit for the test to gain your license to practice medicine in the United States, you need to have been granted a degree from one of 2,400 medical schools worldwide that have been approved by one of two groups. You can't just study really hard and then hope to pass the test. This isn't completely unlike VMware's insistence that to achieve certification, you need to sit in one of their classes, regardless of your pre-existing levels of knowledge.
Ostensibly, this is because there are gaps and holes in everyone's knowledge, and by attending a rigorously structured training course with a curriculum that has been reviewed and approved, you are less likely to have dangerous gaps in your knowledge. Also, because of money. But ostensibly, the first one too.
Tying these threads back together, Avleen's observation that Operations is essentially a skilled labor workforce is accurate for today. In the future, though, I certainly hope that this isn't the case. I hope that the science of managing infrastructures improves along with the technology. I would like to think that, as time goes by, the expected skills required to build and maintain an infrastructure will increase to the point where learning them through an apprenticeship is infeasible. I want to be better than we are today, and if we practice like we always have, we'll always get what we've always gotten.
Electrical code changes constantly, but in relatively small increments. Construction techniques advance with materials science, but even this is at a glacial pace compared with industry best practices for maintaining a well-managed server infrastructure. Eventually, I expect that the role we think of as system administration or "Operations" will require a level of knowledge that will require advanced math (probably in the form of statistics), business, and some computer science.
Overall, I see a mature system administration academic footprint being much more akin to engineering than computer science. Engineering is the application of various sciences to solving problems. People don't generally get PhDs in engineering, and I doubt many people will get PhDs in system administration (or whatever it will be called). But masters degrees, yes. And for good reason, eventually.
So I suppose the bottom line is that I agree with Avleen for now, but in the future, if we're still doing things the same way, we'll have failed ourselves and those who follow us.