In IT operations, finding talent is difficult. For years, there has been a shortage of folks who are capable of maintaining complex infrastructure. To be sure, some of this is geographical. And certainly, the rate of technology change makes it difficult to find people with specific product skills. Hard to find a Kubernetes expert with ten years of experience.
But I suspect there’s a couple of other things going on that, when combined, make the talent dearth even worse.
The Brutality Of Complexity
When I was studying for Novell Netware 3 (before directory services) certifications decades ago, there was a lot to know. Networking with IPX. Architecture of x86 servers. NLMs. Storage strategies. Mail systems. Whatever else was in those red books many of us had on our shelves.
Pre-AD Microsoft certifications were similarly challenging. Domain controllers. Backup domain controllers. File & print systems. User permissions and design strategies. The GINA. Networking with IP, IPX, and NetBEUI. Mail systems. IIS. So much more.
That was before the addition of directory services to Novell and Microsoft operating systems. Directory services changed the game for file, print, email, and more back in the day, and it put a major burden on IT practitioners to skill up. Now, directory services is an authentication complexity we take for granted.
If you compare those early client/server operating systems and peripheral software, the complexity level is laughably simple compared to what an IP pro is meant to know today. Specialty certifications are deep and numerous. Operating infrastructure on-premises is still a need, but public cloud has added yet its own demands on IT professions. Public cloud is NOT outsourcing IT to Uncle Jeff, contrary to the lies told in executive suites.
I’ve yet to mention security, an utter failure on the part of the IT industry to get right. But even insufficient to protect our data as it is, cybersecurity adds an enormous complexity to application delivery infrastructure.
The state of the IT art is brutally complex. Even a basic comprehension of how a client/server transaction actually happens touches on physical networks, several protocols both standard and proprietary, encryption, authentication, deep packet inspection, server hardware, virtualization, operating systems, containers, certificates, tokens, databases, logging, and more. Much more, sadly.
An IT professional develops skills over a career, but it’s a career where there is never time to rest. It’s a career of churn and change. The next project. Implementing the next pile of crap a vendor sold their boss. The next changeover to the new shiny object.
Yes, many of the old skills translate to new ones. There are recognizable patterns in how computing problems are solved. (Buy the book I co-authored to study how this is true for networking.) But if I’m new to IT, how can I hope to comprehend what’s happening at a systems level? There is a mix of focused on-the-job training and diligent, committed, unceasing study required.
A Society Of Unfocused Attention
We are in a global society that, by and large, cherishes the short attention span. Amongst our tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube subscriptions, Netflix trending vapidity, and propaganda masquerading as news, we are a people who stare at screens, consuming mental garbage at maximum velocity–not merely at an alarming rate, although the rate is alarming. We take it in as fast as we possibly can.
We watch a 15 minute YouTube video and feel proud for having lasted that long. A 2+ hour superhero movie is only endurable because the images and scenes move so quickly that our brain stays bathed in happy chemicals.
Ads have become shorter and shorter so that we can’t hit the skip button quickly enough. A marketer can’t get a meaningful message out about their product anymore, and they no longer try. Entertainment is the order of the day, where geckos sell us insurance and athletes mug for fizzy sugar water, sharing the frame with sexy, gyrating humans.
Our brains are now trained to go to the next thing. And the next. And the next. And the next. Infinite scrolling. Amuse me. Entertain me. TikToks are only 30 seconds long. 30 seconds! Yet Tiktok made the news in December 2020 by experimenting with the unthinkably long time of 3 minutes.
Training The Next Generation
How are we as an IT industry going to properly train the next generation of IT engineers? This is a serious question. Shall we bait them with money? Perhaps. That’s a motivator for some. But what about when UBI becomes a reality, which is what the pandemic unemployment funds essentially were? Observational experience suggests that folks who are paid to do nothing…do nothing.
How will we take brutally complex application delivery systems and gain the attention required for people to become competent in operating them?
While pondering this issue with a friend, he pointed out that a major publisher is now limiting video lessons to 6 minutes–8 minutes being a hard maximum. Yes, the aggregated course material can be much longer. But if students have been deemed incapable of maintaining focus on a technical topic for longer than 6 minutes at a time, what does that say for the future of IT practice?
Technology mastery will be increasingly in the hands of the very few as a dwindling number of folks are willing, or perhaps even able, to create a mental state of focused learning. The application delivery stacks are enormously more complex than they were 25 years ago. Learning them requires a huge amount of focus over long periods of time.
Six Minutes Is Not A Solution
Is the answer really 6 minute lessons? Or is the answer for individuals to reject social media, reduce video consumption, and rediscover long-form learning? I vote for the latter. It’s up to us to take back control of whatever we’ve allowed to own our minds.
Let’s learn to read long, technically demanding books again. Let’s remember what it’s like to get into a lab exercise for a few hours at a time. Let’s practice doing One Thing for an uninterrupted span of time–no email, IMs, PMs, DMs, Slack adventures, badge notifications, browser tabs, or multitasking distracting us from the One Thing.
What if we’re in the role of education? Writing blogs. Sharing educational videos. Delivering a presentation. Is the answer to entertain non-stop in order to drive engagement? I’m an instructor and not a comic, although I’ll share dad puns with reckless abandon. But how did we get to the point where how long someone paid attention (i.e. didn’t click away) was a success metric, versus what someone actually learned?
When I was a high school teacher, success was measured, in part, by the grades of my students. I surely worked hard not to be boring and to hold a classroom’s attention. Teaching, especially live teaching, is admittedly a sort of performance art. But I don’t think it’s possible to compete with the distraction economy. When teaching adults hard topics, they have to want to learn.
Going back to the problem of a dearth of IT talent, I believe this issue of attention might be getting to the root of it. Who wants to learn IT anymore? What’s their motivation? If their brains are already owned by social media, what’s left for the rest of their lives? How many folks that started reading this piece made it this far? Those that clicked away aren’t the sort that are going to be effective IT practitioners, staying current and learning lifelong.
I don’t have a clear solution to this dilemma, but I’m fairly sure the answer isn’t catering to those with attention deficits. I don’t want to accommodate the problem. I want to smash it.