The path of the “Swiss Army” admin – Career Advice

Many-hatsDefinition: The “Swiss Army” admin/engineer is also referred to as a technical staff member wearing many hats. Such individual is often overlooked and under-appreciated in the business.

In many environments, usually in small and medium businesses, the IT staff is comprised of one of two people that take care of the entire infrastructure. This means that there are usually a handful of people that take care of storage, virtualization, network, application, email, databases, and administration of other critical applications for the entire business. This person is a jack of all trades, but master of none.

I come across this type of individuals on a daily basis and most of them are not thrilled about their situation. They are asked to take care of the entire IT infrastructure, do it fast and efficiently with no additional tools and low compensation. Oh yes, and be available 24/7, of course.

Although this sounds horrible, and many of us have been there or are still going through this, there is an upside of being a “Multi-mode” admin/engineer.

I started my career backwards. I began working at huge, multi-billion dollar enterprises consisting of hundreds of thousands of users. I was doing two or three things as part of my responsibilities, but that was the responsibility ceiling for me. I was not allowed to learn anything else outside my expertise, so I decided to move on to smaller companies. Turns out that the smaller the company, the more I got to do and learn. Yes, I was busier and there were no processes in place. It was more like shooting from the hip, which did not amuse me, but at least I was learning a lot.

The point is, wearing many hats allows you to learn many different areas of IT, but it shouldn’t stop there. If you want to grow in your career and/or move to bigger companies, you need to master multiple areas of IT. Obviously this does not happen overnight and takes quite a bit of involvement, effort, and more importantly your personal time and sacrifice.

Why do I need expertise in multiple areas?

Well, if you wear many hats, you are more than capable of administering an environment. But that is pretty much it. When you study and use labs for other technologies or even deep dives with existing solutions, you learn how things work and interact. The more you learn about separate solutions, the more you see how this is a big circle and it makes sense from an interaction point of view. Learning, understanding and being able to speak intelligently about the interactions between different technologies makes you an invaluable asset to the business.

One may argue that to be an expert, you need to specialize in one and only one particular area. I agree with that, but nothing stops you from mastering areas as time goes by. I’m not saying you need to be an expert on everything right now, but pick an area where you think you are good at and dive into. Once you feel you have mastered that domain or close to, you can move on to another area.

What it comes down to is depth of knowledge. Swiss army admins have a breadth of knowledge but little depth. Having both breadth and depth of knowledge will allow you to greatly expand your career, as these individuals are few within job markets. So, work on deepen the knowledge you currently have. Such depth of knowledge will increase as long as you consistently work on them, allowing you to become not just a Swiss Army admin but a well rounded technology expert.