Toward an Appreciation Of Generalism

It took over twenty nine years to become the generalist I am today.

One of the best parts of independent consulting is that learning new things is baked into everyday reality. Every day, every challenging issue, brings with it an opportunity to learn new things.

This crazy circuitous path has traversed system support (mainframe ops, *nix sysadmin) application support (SAP Basis,Siebel Admin), Distributed Enterprise System Monitoring (Netview, Tivoli/ITM,Prometheus), and Database support/administration (DB2/MySQL/MariaDB) to name a couple. Now, my new favorite activity is building out scalable monitoring and reporting infrastructures using open-source tools like Zabbix and Prometheus and working with containers and config management.

‘Full Stack’ Paradigm (in the 90’s)

Before skill-matrixing in large enterprises was a thing, in a proprietary stack like Siebel or SAP, hidden away somewhere there may be a couple people that drifted in-between the components. They functioned like a utility players, specializing in DB migration, then automating critical manual work or fixing a weird performance issue in production. Sometimes these were senior employees,  often they were independents. With SAP, the Basis Admin was the full stack person: ABAP code, DBA, Unix admin tasks, Security perms (with Sec folks), SAPGUI, Batch; like gumbo or sauce it was all in there. The same applied to Siebel. What’s interesting is how each tower shared personnel and built domain specific improvements even though the technical areas were different. Because the business required flexibility (in when tasks performed and deadlines) much of the higher level work I and others performed in these roles was remote. It continued like this for years.

In this large enterprise the cumulative effect of the institutional knowledge coupled with the deep dive understanding of applications was, in a way,  a super-power or at least a competitive advantage. Yet, this was not done through tools or even process. It was the culture and vibe that ultimately created this value. The interconnect between teams was woven through the people and the culture. In some ways this org exhibited all three Westrum typologies and occasionally the generative one was dominant. In Ops it was much more bureaucratic and occasionally pathological, usually around RCAs and outages. No doubt still a staid corporate culture but underneath there were elements of trust to do the right thing in the senior management. The vibe of ERP vs CRM projects was quite pronounced though it seemed that the more mature nature of the SAP practice helped steer the CRM projects. In a way, one was a farm team for the other. I still see this pattern.

Now, I feel I have the same exact goal as over twenty years ago: help people solve real problems with software and help their businesses be more successful and self sufficient. That last self-sufficiency part has been a tenet of our business since the start because it just felt right. Oddly, when I  focused on liberating clients from needing us, they ended up trusting and engaging us even more. It also maintains a level of integrity sometimes conspicuously absent in ‘vendor’ delivered software solutions.

My first truly independent consulting gig was installing GNU software for an upstate NY library council. Ahhh, the joy of compiling Pine from sources and checking out Tripwire or COPS.  I will share that it felt personally rewarding helping libraries leverage software to make work lives more productive and happier. So many years later, I have returned to this space and recognize there is a rediscovered truth for me.