Category Archives: Education

Standard Areas of Discipline Within IT

 

Information Technology and Business Infrastructure are an enormous field filled with numerous and extremely varied career opportunities not just in the industries in which work is done, but also in the type of work that is done. Only rarely are any two IT jobs truly alike. The variety is incredible. However, certain standard career foci do exist and should be understood and known to everyone in the field as they provide important terminology for mutual understanding.

It is very important to note that, like in any field, it is most common that a single person will do more than one role throughout their careers and even at the same time. Just as someone may be half time burger cook and half time cashier, someone may have their time split between different IT roles. But we need to know what those roles are and what they mean to be able to convey value, experience and expectation to others.

These are what we refer to as “IT Specializations” and are areas of specific focus and opportunity for deep skill within IT. These often do not just represent job roles within IT, but in large businesses generally are representative of entire departments of career peers who work together. None of these areas of focus is more or less senior to any other, these are different areas, not levels. There is no natural or organic progression from one IT discipline area to another, however all IT experience is valuable and it would be expected that experience in one discipline would prepare someone to more quickly learn and adapt to another area.

The terms “Administration” and “Engineering” are often applied today, these, again, are not levels, nor are they discipline areas. These refer to a role being focused on operations (the running of production systems) or on designing systems for deployment. These two share discipline areas. So, for example, the Systems discipline would have need for both administration and engineering workloads within it.

Systems. Shortened from “operating systems.” Systems roles are focused on the operating systems, normally of servers (but not necessarily in all cases.) This is the most broadly needed specialized IT role. Within systems, specializations tend to be such as Windows, RHEL, Suse, Ubuntu, AIX, HP-UX, Solaris, FreeBSD, Mac OSX and so forth. High level specializations such as UNIX are common with a single person or department servicing any system that falls under that umbrella, or larger organizations might split AIX, Solaris, RHEL and FreeBSD into four discrete teams to allow for a tight focus on skills, tools and knowledge. Systems specialists provide the application platform on which computer programs (which would also include databases) will run. Desktop support is generally seen as being a sub-discipline of systems, and one that often intersects pragmatically with end user and helpdesk roles.

Platforms. Also known as virtualization or cloud teams (depending on exact role), the platform discipline focues on the abstraction and management (hypervisor) layer that sits, or can sit, between physical hardware and the operating system(s). This team tends to focus on capacity planning, resource management and reliability. Foci within platform specialization would commonly include VMware ESXi, vCloud, Xen, XenServer, KVM, OpenStack, CloudStack, Eucalyptus, Hyper-V and so forth. With the advent of massively hosted platforms, there has also arisen a need for foci on specific hosted implementations of platforms such as Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, Rackspace, Softlayer and so on.

Storage. Storage of data is so critical to IT that it has filtered out as its own, highly focused discipline. Storage specialist generally focus on SAN, NAS and object store systems. Focus areas might include block storage in general, or might drill down to specific product or product lines, such as EMC VMAX or HPE 3PAR. With recent growth in scale out storage technologies, the storage arena is growing both in total size as well as in depth of skill expectation.

Databases. Similar to storage, databases provide critical “backing” of information to be consumed by other departments. While conceptually databases and storage overlap, in practicality the two are separated dramatically in how they are treated. We think of storage as “dumb”, “unstructured” or “bulk” storage and database as “smart”, “focused” or “highly structured” storage. At their fundamental level, the two are actually quite hard to distinguish. In practice, they are extremely different. Database specialists work specifically on database services, but rarely create databases and certainly do not code database connected applications. Like their systems counterparts, database specialists (often called DBAs) manage the database platform for other teams to consume. Database foci could be high level such as relational databases or non-relational (NoSQL) databases. Or, more commonly, a DBA would focus on one or more very specific database applications such as Informix, MS SQL Server, DBase, Firebird, PostgreSQL, MariaDB, MySQL, MongoDB, Redis, CouchDB, and many more.

Applications. Applications are the final product that consumes all other platform components from physical systems, platforms, systems, storage, databases and more. Applications are the ultimate component of the computational stack and can take a massive variety of forms. Application specialists would never use that term but would be referred to as a specialist on a specific application or set of applications. Some application families, such as CRM and ERP, as so large that an entire career might be spent learning and supporting a single one (such as an SAP ERP system.) While in many other cases one might manage and oversee hundreds of small applications over a career span. Common application areas include CRM, ERP, email, web portals, billing systems, inventory tracking, time tracking, productivity and so much more. Applications could include just about anything and while some are high provide, such as an Exchange email system; others might be very trivial such as a small desktop utility for calculating mortgage rates quickly.

Networking. Networks tie computers together and require much design and management on their own making them often the second largest discipline within IT. Network specialists work on buses, hubs, switches, routers, gateways, firewalls, unified thread management devices, VPNs, network proxies, load balancers and other aspects of allowing computers to speak to each other. Networking specialists typically focus on a vendor, such as Cisco or Juniper, rather than product types such as switches or routers. Networking is, with systems, the best well known or most commonly mentioned, role in IT even if the two are often confused. This role also supports the SAN (the actual network itself) for storage teams.

Security. Not truly an IT discipline itself, but rather an aspect that applies to every other role, IT Security specialists tend to either specialize by other discipline (network security, application security) or act as a cross discipline role with a focus on the security aspects as they cross those domains. Security specialists and teams might focus on proactive security, security testing and even social engineering.

Call Center, NOC or Helpdesk. The front line role for monitoring systems across other domains, taking incoming calls and emails and assisting in triage and sometimes direct support for an organization which may or may not include end users. This role varies heavily depending on who the direct “customer” of the service is, if tasks are interrupt (monitoring) based or if they are queue (ticket) based. Often the focus of this role is high level triage but can cross dramatically into end user support. This discipline is often seen as a “helper” group to other teams.

End User Support. Whether working sitting beside an end user in person (aka “deskside support) or remotely (aka helpdesk), end user support roles work directly with individual end users to resolve individual issues, communicate with other support teams, train and educate, and so forth. This is the only IT role that would commonly have any interaction with non-IT teams (unless reporting “up” in the organization to management.)

Hardware Technical Support. This role has no well known name and is often known only by the fact that it works with hardware. This role or family of roles includes the physical support and management of desktop or laptop devices, the support and management of physical servers, storage systems, or networking devices or the physical management of a datacenter or similar. This is the portion of IT that rubs shoulders with the “bench” field (considered to be outside of IT) and consists of much grey area overlapping with it. Hardware Support will often plug in and organize cables and generally works supporting other teams, predominately platforms or systems. Separating IT Hardware Support from Bench work is often nothing more than an “operational mindset” and most roles could potentially go in either direction. Placing desktops on desks is often seen as falling to bench, whereas racking, stacking and monitoring server hardware is generally seen as IT Hardware.


 

It is often practical to define what IT is not, rather than what it is. Many things are often assumed to be IT roles, but are not, and are so commonly connected with the field that it is worth expressly pointing out that they are not IT roles, but rather something else.

Project Management. PM is its own discipline that is far more a part of management than any other field and has no direct ties to IT whatsoever. IT often utilizes PM roles and PMs often oversee IT projects and IT companies or departments generally have PMs tasked to them; but the PM career itself is quite separate from IT. The same as any management role.

No Cabling. IT is most certainly not an electrician’s trade and the running off, termination of and certification of building cables is not even remotely within the scope of IT. Most IT departments will plug in computers to their network ports; but this no more makes IT the electrical maintenance department than plugging in a lamp at home makes you the electrician. The physical cabling plant of a company remains part of the electrical and maintenance roles clearly outside of IT.

No Programming. There is no programming role within IT. Software Engineering is a closely associated industry, but is not itself part of IT proper. The head of IT is seen as the CIO, the head of SE is see as the CTO. CIO is about business infrastructure – the “plumbing” of the organization. The CTO is about the engineering and creation of new tooling – often which would then be used by the IT organization. The expectation is that IT would request tools from SE. That is not to say that IT roles never write code, they often do, but coding is not the product of IT, it’s a tool in the toolset. An SE’s job is to deliver code as the end product.

No DevOps. DevOps is not a role. DevOps is a modern terminology for a specific style of working in other roles. One can be a DevOps System Admin or a DevOps Network Admin or a DevOps DBA, for example, but you can’t be just “DevOps” as it does not mean anything on its own. DevOps is a way of working, not a specific task. So we do not see DevOps on the list, even though DevOps is an important concept in IT in general.

Legitimate University Programs Are Not Certification Training

The university educational process is one that is meant to broaden the mind, increase exposure to different areas, teach students to think outside of the box, encourage exploration, develop soft skills, and to make students better prepared to tackle more learning such as moving on to trade skills needed for specific fields.  The university program, however, is not meant to provide trade skills themselves (the skills used in specific trades), that is the role of a trade school.   Students leaving universities with degrees are intended to not be employable due to specific skill sets learned at college, but to be well prepared to learn on the job or move on to additional education for a specific job.

In the last two decades, led primarily by for profit schools looking to make money quickly without regards to the integrity of the university system, there has been a movement, especially in the United States, for trade schools to get accredited (an extremely low bar requirement that has no useful standing outside of legal qualifications for educational minimums and should never be see as a mark of quality) and sell trade degrees as if they were traditional university degrees.  This has been especially prevalent in IT fields where certifications are broadly known and desired, acquiring properly skilled educational staff is expensive and essentially impossible to do at the scale necessary to run a full program, degree areas are easily misunderstood by those entering their college years and where the personality traits most common to people going into the field sadly makes those people easy prey for collegiate marketing drives.  The promise of easy classes, double dipping (getting the certs you need anyway then getting a bonus degree for the effort) and the suggestion that by having a degree and certs all at once will open doors and magically provide career options that pay loads of money triggers an emotional response that makes potential students less able to make rational financial and education decisions, additionally.  It’s a predatory market, not an altruistic one.

Certificates play a fundamentally different role than a university education does.  Unlike universities, certification is about testing very specific skills, often isolated by product or vendor, things that should never appear in any university program.  Certification may be broad (and closer to collegiate work) in certs like the CompTIA Network+ which tests a broad range of basic networking knowledge and nothing specific to a vendor or product, but is still overly specific to a single networking technology or group of technologies to be truly appropriate for a university, but is, at the very least, leaning in that direction.  But more common certifications such as Microsoft MCSE, Cisco’s CCNA, CompTIA’s Linux+ or A+ are all overly product and vendor specific, far too “which button do I press” and far too little “what does the underlying concepts mean” for collegiate work.

Certifications are trade related and a great addition to university studies.  University work should prepare the student for broad thinking, critical thinking, problem solving and core skills like language, maths and learning.  Then applying that core knowledge to certifications should make achieving certifications easier and meaningful.  University should show a background in soft skills and broadness, while certifications should show trade skills and specific task capabilities.

Warning signs that a university is behaving improperly would include, in regards to this area of concern, overly specific programs that sound as if they are aimed at technologies like a degree in “Cisco Networking” or “Microsoft Systems”, if certifications are achieved during the university experience (double dipping – giving out a degree simply for having gotten certs) or if the program leans towards an indication of preparing someone “for the job” or expected to “get the student a great job upon completion” or is expected to “increase salary”.  These are not goals of proper university programs.

Critically evaluating any educational program is very important as educational investments are some of the largest that we make in our lives, both monetarily and in terms of our time commitments.  Ensuring that the programs are legitimate, valuable, meet both our own goals and proper goals, will be seen as appropriate by those that will see them in the future (such as hiring managers) are very important.  There are many aspects over which we must evaluate the university experience, this is only one but it is one that is a newer problem, suddenly very prevalent and one that specifically targets IT and technical hopefuls so requires extra diligence in our industry.

 

Choosing a University for IT Education

In previous articles I have tackled the questions around approaching university education and selecting a degree program but, thus far, I have not provided any guidance in selecting an institution at which to study.  That will be rectified now.

There are basically five categories of universities in the United States that we need to consider.  These types of educational institutions are:

  • Unaccredited schools
  • Accredited Trade schools
  • Accredited Online schools
  • Accredited Brick and Mortar Private schools
  • Public Brick and Mortal schools

There are more types of schools than these but we can basically lump all schools into one of these categories as these are the general categories that a hiring manager will view schools on a candidate’s resume.  University education has two key benefits, the first is in broadening thought processes and introducing students to many topics through liberal studies.  The second is in providing beneficial resume line items and for this second category we need a university that provides a positive reaction.

So assuming that we are concerned about putting our degrees and education onto our resumes, we need to consider carefully how our choices of educational institution will reflect on us.  You will notice that I carefully did not say that universities provide skill training to prepare workers for the jobs that they will do.  This I have covered in other articles; the university system is not intended nor generally capable of training people directly for work.  There is no mandate to do this, no expectation and little potential capacity especially when we are considering highly technical or quickly changing career fields.  IT maybe be among the most extreme of these kinds of fields, but this issue applies across the board.

Because such a huge portion of the value of a degree comes from how that degree is perceived by a hiring manager, we have to consider that impression very carefully.  And this produces what I would consider “the dead line” in selecting educational institutions.

For a large percentage of hiring managers, and much of the population, only certain types of universities are considered valid.  This is not a judgment call, only an observation of hiring reality.  Whether the quality of education, rigors of study and such are valuable or not, certain categories of schools are considered non-valid in enough of the marketplace that we must effectively discount them from consideration.

From the list that I have provided, any school that is unaccredited, purely online or a tech/trade school should be completely avoided.  These three categories are routinely views as such a strong negative that in a great many cases a candidate will be eliminated based on this one factor alone.  It is commonly said that hiring managers will see one of these schools and throw a resume directly out without any further consideration, but in reality in many cases an HR filter will do this before any human even sees the resume.  The same logic that says that we use degrees to get passed human resource gatekeepers to get our resumes in front of hiring managers based on “black and white” filter requirements, also tells us that we must avoid schools that would be considered to be on a “black list.”

This leaves only two categories of schools for any serious consideration: private, accredited brick and mortar schools and public, accredited brick and mortar schools.  Now, it must be noted, that just because a school is brick and mortar does not mean that they do not also offer online or alternative classes.  And at no point has it been suggested that it is necessary to attend a school in person.  What is critical is simply that the school be perceived as a valid, traditional educational institution.  In many cases, online classes are the best option as they provide more flexibility and better use of time avoiding time wasted in commuting, moving between classrooms and such.

Of this remaining category, public schools fare far better than private ones because the lower cost of attendance lowest, quite dramatically, the risk inherent in spending time and money on education: the less money spent, the less risk taken.  In only rare cases are private schools any better than public ones and in very many cases, they are worse.  The risk/reward calculation on most public schools is simply far better in the majority of cases.

With any school choice, reputation matters.  Schools with a good reputation are best, especially those that are broadly known.  Schools that have no reputation can be fine, as long as they truly are unknown and fall into good categories.  Schools can get a bad reputation regionally or globally, however, and this poses a risk that is difficult to predict or to avoid.  What is a top ranked school today can be poorly viewed tomorrow, and vice versa.  Large schools have the advantage of increasing the chances that someone on a hiring team will have attended that school increasing personal affinity.

There is no simple answer to selecting the right school.  Does the school benefit you through education, reputation or association (with people that will help you later in your career) is unique to each person and school combination.  But he universal guideline to follow is to stick to accredited, broadly well respected, brick and mortar, public or private not for profit schools and consider cost carefully.  Avoid online and/or for profit schools or any school that lacks proper accreditation.

As a modern side note: many schools, even sometimes others good ones, that advertise heavily especially on television or radio, often earn a bad reputation simply because of the medium of attempting to lure students.  If you have seen a school because of their marketing campaign, assume that a hiring manager has as well and while some good schools do this, it may not matter.

Choosing a University Degree Program for IT

In my last article I looked at the overarching concerns and approaches to an university program and how it would apply to us in IT. Now we will look at individual programs and how to approach the selection of a major and focus area within the university system.

Of actual degree programs we face a world of complexity as universities and colleges often use any variety of names for their programs of study and often attempt to use one program to teach another so a program name will often not match the actual field of study which can be very bad as you do not want to be in a position of needing to explain this discrepancy to potential employers or existing employers. An example of this was a well known northeastern school that lacked the ability to offer an IT program so relabeled their existing library science program to IT and passed that off as such for many years.

The first thing to consider is if we want to have a focused program in our field or one outside of the field. Given what we learned from the last article, that universities excel at liberal and traditional subjects and do poorly at technical ones and that our goals are to be broadly educated and not focused on specific skills, I general prefer to see students or job candidates who have been through non-technical course loads rather than technical ones.

There are any number of good non-technical programs from which to choose. Great examples include communications, business, accounting and psychology. It is good, of course, if any program includes some technical concepts such as project management and systems analysis, but these can simply be addressed through electives. It is also best if any program include studies in math, especially statistics and risk analysis, and general business classes, basic accounting and management. Students, we hope, will leave school with a firm foundation in understanding business context, people and communications because these are the soft skills that are most critical to an IT career and even moreso to an SMB IT career where there is far less departmental isolation between some tech positions and the operational side of the business.

For those that do not want to take the most liberal of paths as described above, universities often offer a large range of degrees within or near the IT discipline itself. This plethora of IT or IT-like options can often lead to confusion and risks making the selection rather dangerous as a highly technical degree that is in the wrong area of study would be the worst possible option – teaching neither IT nor teaching the broad skill set that IT practitioners desperately need. Even worse is going through the wrong field of study will often wildly mislead students as to what to expect when they enter the IT field and may actively look extremely bad on a resume as it can appear (and rightfully so in many cases) that the student did not take the time to understand their chosen field of study, know what degrees would be applicable to it and failed to realize this through years of university classes or did and did not bother to switch to an appropriate program! This is what we most want to avoid, actively bad degree programs.

To make this as challenging as possible, IT degrees often come with a variety of names. And IT degrees may be included under multiple schools or colleges within a university. Some universities have IT degrees inside of an IT school, others may have them within a more general science program, a math program or often within engineering. Some even have IT degrees under a business school. It is not unheard of for IT degrees to exist in multiple places within the same university with different foci depending on which college is administering the program.

We must also address the big question of “is software engineering and programming a part of IT?” In universities, the answer is generally yes even though in the professional world the answer is a resounding “no” – the two are clearly different fields of study and different disciplines. Software engineering is dedicated to the design and building of products. IT is dedicated to the building and support of the infrastructure of businesses. There is some overlap as any two fields might have, but they are very clearly different career fields that deal with extremely different day to day duties and tasks. It is quite common to find software engineering, developer and programmer courses and degree programs lumped into the same schools as IT or even put under an IT umbrella. This is not necessarily bad but can be quite confusing. We must be clear, however, that software engineering is not IT and any degree focused on programming should be avoided for someone with an interest in heading into the world of IT. Any respectable IT program is going to teach programming as a core foundation to the field, but the program will never be focused on it. If it is, this is a mislabeled program and should be avoided.

Proper IT programs should have names such as Information Technology, Computer Information Systems or Management Information Systems. IT and CIS programs are often interchangeable. MIS programs tend to be a subset of IT more focused on certain management-supporting aspects of IT.

Programs that are most insidious and dangerous to IT hopefuls are ones that are most closely named but least closely associated with the IT field: computer engineering and computer science. These two should never, ever cross paths with those looking for careers in IT.

Computer engineering is older than IT and is a subset of electrical engineering. This is a traditional engineering field that focuses on the design of computers and computer components (like processors, chips, boards, peripherals) themselves and has effectively no crossover with IT or any IT-related discipline in any way. Computer engineering and IT should almost never even appear within the same school or college within a university.

If software engineering (which itself is not an IT discipline but is at least closely related) is the programming world’s analogue to the world of traditional product development engineering then computer science is the programming world’s analogue to physics or mathematics. Computer science is truly a “science and math” type field, developing the theories and foundation that is then used by the software engineering discipline to build products often used and managed by the IT discipline. Computer Science, CS, is probably the most commonly mistaken field that IT hopefuls will enter and if a true CS program it is completely inappropriate and a waste of time. This is the program to look out for the most. Avoid CS completely and avoid any university attempting to pass IT programs off as CS, the two never overlap.

Do not take the selection of a university major lightly. My recommendation is to keep your selection as liberal as possible, use electives to introduce IT elements like basic programming and networking into your curriculum, fill your time with mind-broadening classes and learn about business, finance, accounting, communications, writing, speaking and statistics. Attempt to find internships or opportunities in the university to work with IT departments. Actively work to leverage your opportunities at university to make yourself as prepared as possible to focus on the specific skills of IT externally to your university training.