The More Things Change

I suspect that most of you have heard and used the phrase "The more things change, the more they stay the same." The Internet helped me learn that the original quote by Alphonse Karr was actually "The more things change, the more they are the same." I suspect that Karr would agree that many of the discussions taking place in the IT arena today are the same ones that took place a generation ago and will be taking place a generation from now.

Since attending Tech Ed 2007 a few weeks ago, I've been thinking about the topic of IT generalists versus specialists coupled with the paradigm of information overload as it affects the lives and practices of IT and development professionals. Needless to say, these aren't new topics of discussion. I first broached this topic in the SQL Server Magazine Update commentary Can Generalists Handle Complex IT? on December 9, 1999, just a few months after I started writing the editorial for SQL Server Magazine Update more than eight years ago. You'll see that I compare the modern days (circa 1999) of IT development in which it's impossible to be an expert in everything with the good old days when it was reasonably possible to be somewhat of an expert in a wide number of areas. The following is an excerpt from Can Generalists Handle Complex IT?:

"All that said, here's my nagging concern. Sometimes I worry that the solutions we're trying to build require such a high degree of specialization that people doing the job don't always have an adequate level of expertise to solve the problem properly. I do a lot of troubleshooting and tuning for SQL Server systems. I regularly see my clients and colleagues, whom I consider outstanding IT professionals, make simple mistakes. The mistakes are simple for me to find and fix because I spend a lot of time keeping up on the latest tips and tricks associated with database application tuning. The mistakes aren't always simple for the original developers to avoid because they need to keep on top of so many things as they're working in complex distributed and middleware-oriented architectures.

Back in the days of "Little House on the Prairie," Doc Baker did a good job of handling the medical needs of Walnut Grove. He was a great doctor for the time and knowledge available, but today I'd want to see a top specialist if I needed brain surgery. More and more, what's considered a commonplace solution is the IT equivalent of brain surgery, but more often than not, the IT equivalent of general practitioners still do the work. They might be amazingly skilled and talented doctors, but they're still generalists rather than specialists. The tools are getting better, but they're not THAT good yet. I'm don't know whether this is a serious problem, and even if it is, I don't have a good answer. But still, it worries me now and then."

I wrote that in 1999 but the sentiments are still true today. If anything, the need for IT specialization has grown over the past decade. A stray comment from a Microsoft employee during Tech Ed started my wheels churning on this topic. The Microsoft employee mentioned that he asked attendees at one of his talks "who was waiting to upgrade to SQL Server 2005, until SP1 was out." Surprisingly, more than a handful of folks raised their hands. I guess they needed to get busy starting their upgrade when they learned that SQL Server 2005 SP2 was already available. But I was surprised to learn that some of the attendees in that session who had already upgraded to SQL Server 2005 didn't know that SQL Server 2005 SP2 had been available for months. I'm not interested in discussing whether everyone should upgrade to the latest service pack as soon as it ships, although that discussion would be relevant for future generations, just as it is today. Instead, I'd like to examine the state of affairs that leads us to a situation where seemingly sophisticated SQL Server users, who are bothering to attend Tech Ed, would be running SQL Server 2005 and not even know what service pack is out. Making an informed decision not to upgrade is one thing; not being aware that you had the option to upgrade is another. I decided that the cause of this lack of awareness might very well be a case of information overload, which I've been writing about on and off for close to a decade. When discussing information overload, I've commented on the fact that the never-ending supply of high-quality information available on the Internet and from other sources leads to an interesting paradox. The answers are out there, but there are so many darn answers that it's hard to figure out what the "right" answer is. I observed that sometimes this leads to a "head in the sand" conclusion of deciding to do nothing because there's so much information to mull over.

Are we getting to the point that "head in the sand syndrome" keeps people from even knowing that a new service pack is out? I sure hope not. But I suspect that this problem will only intensify as the trend continues for companies to have dedicated DBAs in lieu of a team of developers who share responsibility for SQL Server and let network administrators perform backups. I wonder if columnists talked about this back in the mainframe days. I'm sure columnists will still be talking about this problem a generation from now--after all, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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