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Why you need to hire IT generalists

Thor Olavsrud | Dec. 8, 2015
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.

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.


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