by Thor Olavsrud

Why you need to hire IT generalists

Dec 07, 2015
IT Leadership

While IT specialists with deep technical knowledge in particular fields remain important, your IT team needs generalists with a broad view across technology areas and the ability to understand the interactions between them.

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Much has been said over the past several years about the need for CIOs to transform IT — to go from keeping the lights on to being a strategic partner for the business. The root of that transformation is a cultural change that starts with how you think about staffing your organization, says ExtraHop CIO John Matthews.

“IT has changed a lot in the last 15 years,” Matthews says. “When I was first coming up, technologies were so siloed. It wasn’t an emotional siloing; they were actually siloed.”

“Take data networks and phone systems,” he adds. “The phone and the network were profoundly separate things when I first began. Over the years, it’s become one thing and there are a lot of challenges associated with that. Look at dropped packets. That’s fine in networking, but in voice the human ear hears that kind of chatter. Networks had to be designed differently to accommodate voice. That’s happening across all of IT.”

The silos are breaking down, but complexity is increasing, Matthews says. That means that hiring specialists — people with deep knowledge in particular IT fields like storage or networking — is no longer sufficient. You need to look for IT generalists who can understand the interactions between those specialized areas.

“Generalists are needed because you’ve got to have somebody who can look across the span of a number of different areas and derive insights,” Matthews says. “You still need specialists. A storage guy looks at storage and understands it in a deep and profound way. But that understanding is only good for the actual act of storage. If you want to understand how storage is interacting with a network or an application — or most likely, both of them — you need a generalist.”

Matthews took the role of CIO at rapidly growing ExtraHop, a specialist in real-time wire data analytics for IT intelligence and business operations, in December of last year. But he is no stranger to managing IT organizations. Before becoming CIO at ExtraHop, he served as CIO of F5 Networks for nearly a decade. He has also served as IT leader for MSN Operations at Microsoft, CIO at Towne Exploration Company and director of IT Operations at Adobe.

Within the first few months of taking the helm of ExtraHop’s IT group, he grew it by 100 percent to support the company’s scale-up of its environment to meet the growing customer demand for wire data analytics.

“The director of IT and I sat down looking for smart technology people who have a broad set of experiences,” he explains. “They also had to have great attitudes. Good attitude wins the day.”

To be clear, Matthews doesn’t advocate eschewing specialists. Instead, he recommends seeking people who are curious, people who are driven to learn new things.

“Honestly, the best specialists I know are generalists,” he says. “They’re a specialist because they, for instance, love pure networking and all they really want to do is networking. But they’re smart enough to understand that every technology and application that connects to their network affects its performance. They need to understand it. The best specialists learn a lot about other areas. There is no silo anymore that delivers the whole package.”

Matthews notes that his approaches to enticing younger IT professionals and seasoned veterans differ. He entices younger IT pros by offering them the opportunity to play with several different technologies. Like a lot of IT work, some of it is hard and boring. But they also have the chance to get their hands dirty with “cool and innovative” technologies. The best seasoned IT veterans, he believes, are enticed by the love of technology, by a company’s reputation and the chance to be part of building something, not just following a bunch of rules.

Once they’ve signed on, it’s essential to follow through with proper management.

“Managing technology people is not like managing other people,” he says. “If were to run an organization where I told everyone what to do all the time, I would not retain high-quality technical talent. Technology leaders truly need to understand it’s a partnership with their employees. It’s not a boss-employee relationship.”

“Number one, they’re all smarter than me,” he adds. “If I create an environment where their good ideas get better airtime, not only do they respect me more, they do better things.”

But Matthews also expects his team to hold up their end of the partnership. When he started at ExtraHop, one of the first things he did was insist that the entire team share “on-call” responsibilities.

“You might have 20-year systems engineers helping Rachel try to solve how to send an email from her laptop,” he says. “We spread the load so that everybody is interacting with the business. We try to sit in on as many business-level staff meetings as we can to understand what’s driving their behavior, the problems they’re trying to solve and to stay aware of what their goals are. We need to see how they function from the group up and get a full-fledged photo of what’s happening in that business. As a creative IT person, you might be able to come up with some great ideas to help them succeed.”

Matthews has also set the tone by establishing the importance of continuing education and training. Not only does he provide time and funding for his employees to pursue training and certifications, he’s also set up a program under which every two weeks someone in the organization runs a training on a technology or area they care about. One session might have an older DBA training others on server administration, while the next might have a young hotshot developer showing off some Perl scripting tricks.

“Everybody seems to like it a lot,” Matthews says. “It brings a lot of good, positive mojo into play.”

At the end of the day, Matthews says, it’s all about building an IT team that is empowered to think broadly and creatively, not just about solving IT problems, but addressing business challenges.

“We all know that if IT screws up something significant, the business suffers,” Matthews wrote in a blog post earlier this year. “It can hurt the entire trajectory of a company. But if that’s true, the converse must be true as well. As an IT leader, if I do things better and smarter, I can actually help the business grow faster.”

“I have to look for those opportunities,” he adds. “And more importantly, I have to invest in generating enthusiasm within my IT organization to look for and pinpoint those sweet spots.”

Consider, for instance, a helpdesk technician who is helping a sales person tackle a technology problem.

“If that helpdesk technician has been empowered by their management to look for those opportunities to help the business do more business — and if they’re getting rewarded for their suggestions — then suddenly the good ideas start to flow and everyone feels like they’re a part of it. It’s a team effort. It doesn’t come from the top down, but the top can influence the thought processes. (On the flip side, if all your management is interested in is whether you check the right checkboxes at the right time, go find another job.)”

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