Recently I have been reading a good deal on the death of the techie as a super hero. That is to say, organizations today are not looking to have their technology divisions race in and save the day. This got me thinking about what sort of persons we want to have on our technology teams.
Isaiah Berlin, borrowing from the title of a story from the ancient Greek philosopher Archilochus, wrote a essay titled The Hedgehog and the Fox. While Berlin did not think that this little story would ever amount to much, it turned out to be quite popular.
The essay makes the distinction between two types of thinkers: One who knows many things and the other who knows one big thing. You are likely trying to figure into which of those camps you belong. And really either camp has a good team if you consider the following:
In the camp of the fox we have such distinguished names as Plato, Mouliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce. Quite a list to be a part of. Before joining this tribe consider the Hedgehogs camp which is made up of names such as Aristotle, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, and Neitzsche. From the perspective of writers who have had an impact on my life, I like the Hedgehog's camp better.
This list is Berlin's, agree with it or not. Feel free to comment below.
Rightly, then, this essay has been employed as a way to underscore differences in political ideology, economics, science, business and more. I came at it from a technology perspective and came away with a different perspective than I thought I would.
Berlin uses the example of Leo Tolstoy to exemplify a person who was able to break out of the narrow definition imposed by the essay; one which showed him as having the talents of the Fox with the belief system of the Hedgehog. In our times, Steve Jobs might be an example of a person who exemplifies the talents of the fox while staying true to his more hedgehog-ish beliefs.
In the days when computers were the size of trailers, engineers were all foxes. One person knew enough about a system to be able to recover from most any crash. They were the techie 'heroes' who could saved the day regardless of the issue. Today it takes a team of people to resolve the typical high severity issue.
Part of the reason that it takes a team rather than a person, is that access to all systems today is limited by security requirements, part because technologists tend to be pushed to specialize without having a full understanding of the system.
Most new to technology focuses on a single aspect of the larger system, and, because most employers are structured by technology pillars, most will become some type of hedgehog, borrowing from Berlin's terms. Learning deeply about storage, or infrastructure, or security, or application development, etc.
Additionally, technologists today are encouraged by their employers to enroll in training programs or to learn about what it takes to do their specific jobs. Try to get a DBA enrolled in a VMware course and you'll know what I mean. Good luck getting that course funded!
A third reason is with technology being outsourced, we are also outsourcing our own knowledge about our internal systems. Again, you guessed it, making it more difficult to come to the rescue and raise crashed systems. This is further exacerbated by cloud computing where not only is the supporting resource outsourced but some aspect of the system is also a black box to us.
Lastly, the techie-hero always had access to systems they should not have. This was one of the keys to being able to understand and fix a system that had gone down, or was not performing to specifications. Again, with outsourcing, the required keys to the systems are now in the hands of someone off-shore. So, the techie on-shore is no longer able to access the systems to work their magic.
Today we are Scotty, with Captain Kirk asking us for "more power" and we have to tell him that we have to call the crewman in India who controls "the power," and get right back to him. Clearly, not the best formula for a dramatic save. Though a good formula for security and system stability.
The real heroes today are those who can incorporate the aspects of both the fox and the hedgehog. However, given there are very few of those in today's IT departments, I'll settle for some foxes.