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The loss of critical skills in IT

There’s a recurring problem in IT, and although it’s been going on for years, only now is it starting to bite. With the increase in easy to use GUIs to manage systems, critical skills are starting to disappear. New starters in all areas of IT are able to quickly manage complex systems, but without learning the underlying hard stuff – which means that, when things break, the outages are longer and the fixes prove more difficult.

Here’s a great article from Enterprise Storage Forum. It covers the more common RAID levels that are used today, but also touches on how this knowledge is being lost to storage administrators.

No one who cut their teeth on Veritas Volume Manager or Disksuite can deny that storage administration is easier now than it’s ever been for new admins. However, that knowledge of how to carve up disks, how storage virtualisation worked, how to eek every last ounce of performance out of your system, is now being lost. Trust the SAN storage to optimise itself. Buy some more cache. Monitoring tools are so expensive from the vendor, and we don’t really understand what they do – just fit some more disk trays.

On a wider level, this article in Wired highlights some of the concerns in the US from DARPA about the declining numbers of teenagers learning maths, technology, and hard science – which is slowly leading to a shortage of hard-core geeks.

It’s a problem I’m seeing in more and more companies – even big consulting outfits. The people are great, they can learn quickly, and they can manage large, complex solutions – but they don’t have an understanding of the underlying technology at a low level. More often than not, this leads to to extremes: underestimating what the technology can do (leading to excess cost for the client, as they spend more on kit and consultancy than they need), or overestimating what the technology is capable of (leading to excess costs for the client as they have to buy more kit and consultancy).

This is clearly a pretty poor state of affairs: clients get a raw deal on their IT projects, consultancy companies get a bad reputation as shysters – and less people want to get into a career in IT because, let’s face it, it’s a bit of a mess.

The solution? I don’t know. When I was a teenager we had the Computer Literacy Project, and BBC Micros we had to hack about with to get them to do anything. It was an instructive education and a great time to be involved in IT.

Now, however, hardware hackers are viewed with suspicion. The endless war on terror is making things difficult for someone who carries some homebrew electronics in their pocket – Hack-A-Day has some good editorial coverage here.

Ultimately, I think the hacking scene holds the key to getting more people interested in hardware and software – just as it did 30 years ago.

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