Seeking Out the IT Generalists in the Sea of DevOps

Right before lunch during Day 1 of #devopsdays Austin, there were a short series of Ignite-style talks, two of which I got to watch on Ustream. The first, #occupy_cube, by the telegenic Prabhaker Gopalan (he could easily star in a DevOps reality show – something akin to Big Brother but with server farms and laptops and pizza), ends with Gopalan saying:

Stop talking about DevOps, NoOps. All of this is nonsense. Analysts … get paid for [putting out] their blog posts. Anybody here getting paid for that? No, so go back to your cubes and start building something!

Dave Zwieback, head of systems at Knewton, gave the second Ignite talk, “What Lies Beyond *Ops?”[1] A self-described #techgeneralist rant, Zwieback agrees with Gopalan that the terms NoOps, DevOps and the like are “nonsense,” different ways to break the same egg because in most cases, “We need to build some applications…and deploy them out there.”

Zwieback contends that amid all the talk about DevOps vs. NoOps, people are failing to ask what kinds of people are needed to break through that wall of confusion between operations and developer teams that you see too often in traditional IT infrastructures.

Zwieback takes what John Willis says is a human problem and asks, well, what sort of human do you look for to achieve *Ops goals or, as he put it, “somebody who…understands how the whole thing looks…[and puts] the whole thing together?”

Zwieback’s answer: generalists. “It’s a dirty word for some of you because it’s that jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” he says. But he points out that the whole movement toward DevOps is a reaction to over-specialization:

What you really want are people building the building…to really understand how to do it in such a way that the building doesn’t fall down. That’s a generalist skill. That’s a generalist knowledge. And it’s hard to find, which is why you have so few of them.

No one is born a generalist, Zwieback points out. To become one, you need to go through diverse experience, much of which involves failure:

You need to see your shit fail over and over again and [show] how you respond to that. That’s one of the hallmarks of a generalist.

The ability to respond to a variety of situations is now, of course, critical in dynamic, often cloud-based environments. Toward the end of his talk, Zwieback compares raccoons to koalas as an analogy of generalists to specialists:

The raccoon can live in downtown Austin. He can adapt. [The koala] eats eucalyptus leaves, and guess what happens when those leaves are in short supply?

And Zwieback asserts that generalists are happier, ostensibly because they aren’t limited to such a narrow sphere:

Actually [the koala] reminds me of a guy I used to work with at Morgan Stanley. He was the foremost expert on a particular database and particular use case used only in financial institutions. He was paid an exorbinant amount of money, and he hated it.

  1. (slides at this link)  ↩

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