"Jack of all trades, master of none, but oftentimes better than master of one"
This phrase is often shortened, but I personally prefer the long form version. It rings true in an IT environment where we are increasingly seeing a shift from deep level specialists to the 'supergeneralist'; the admin who can turn their hand to most things and understand a broad range of the fundamental building blocks of technology.
This trend is particularly noticeable in the public cloud environment, where to spin up and run services, you need to know a bit of code, a bit of networking and maybe some basic storage skills. You won’t have to zone a fibre channel switch and set up a SAN from scratch, but you still need the basics.
This shift can make life very difficult for managers, who may struggle to appreciate the value of the holistic and intangible, versus grading employees on a linear scale of how deep they are in their specific specialist domain. This changing value system creates unequal feedback, and an assumption that non-core skills are common across other similar employees. You may assume that because your team can perform a certain function, any team of that type should be able to, rather than understanding that those non-core skills may be rare and valuable. We need to adjust our perception of what’s essential away from simply ticking boxes, and understand a different, more unique and varied concept of employee value.
Just how effective are these 'supergeneralists'?
So how do we assess effectiveness when your team is made up of supergeneralists? There’s no exact science, but we have to try and put a value on the intangible. Just like infrastructure, employees have an ROI. Can you benchmark the typical duties of a role, and what the minimum viable product of a person in that role is? What the minimum required skillset is? And be brutally honest in this. We’ve all seen job specs for entry level roles that demand 25 years' experience, 10 years writing in Go and Scala and the ability to perform light alchemy and witchcraft. Hardly entry level.
While all organisations want the greatest talent at the lowest cost, as we increasingly shift technology teams to a core and context model, accepting that there is efficiency in a tight focus, the employee focus should move to this model as well. Establishing a set of common baselines, and training these skills across the organisation allows for a common understanding and foundation for collaboration. In addition to this, it has long been understood that diversity of thought, background and skill in teams leads to better outcomes. Building teams of supergeneralists with a specific baseline, rather than trying to match your gap analysis exactly will make it far easier to foster a diverse culture where innovation can blossom.
Supergeneralists in the IT evolution
People are an organisation’s most important asset, and assembling the right group to match your goals is critical to successful outcomes. As the IT landscape changes more rapidly than ever, a balance of baseline employees, augmented by partners, contractors, freelancers, consultants and others is now the new normal. All too often we can be guilty of focussing on the technology rather than the human face of it, leading to missed opportunities and wasted investments. With change a constant factor in technology, it is vital that agility, flexibility, and a diversity of thought are imbued across the whole technology organisation, starting with the people that make it work. In the face of this constant change, and with every market becoming more competitive, I would encourage every leader to look at their organisation with a new angle and fresh eyes, and embrace the possibilities of a new style of skill.