Unicorn Hunters

Posted January 25, 2016 by Jeremy Wanamaker

IT Generalist versus IT Outsourcing

I’m amazed at the number of mid-sized business owners who are looking for a unicorn to run their IT department. What is a unicorn? A unicorn is the IT person who can keep the company’s computer hardware running smoothly, maintain the website, provide desktop support, and write a custom ERP application in their spare time. Why do I call them unicorns? Because the person who can do all this no longer exists.

Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, these mythical beings were everywhere. It was not uncommon to find an IT generalist who did all these tasks and more. However, over the past 15 years, it’s become impossible find the technologist who does everything. Yet I’m still shocked at the number of CEOs and business owners who are searching for a unicorn to run their IT department.

My company, CNS, is a managed service provider (MSP), and we provided outsourced IT services to other businesses. Our specialty is IT infrastructure management including servers, workstations, laptops, networking equipment, cabling, and the rest of the hardware and software required to make a business network perform reliably.

For us, sales opportunities often come when unicorns retire or find a new position. When a company loses its IT manager of 10 years, they often explore several options including searching for a replacement unicorn and outsourcing to an MSP. Much of our rapid growth can be attributed to the fact that competent IT generalists are becoming much more difficult to find and our value proposition is more compelling than an internal hire. By hiring us, our clients get the experience of a full IT department for the same or lower cost than a mid-level generalist. Consequently, we win a large percentage of these opportunities.

So why have unicorns disappeared in the past 15 years? Here are a few reasons:

IT has become more complex. If you were working in 2001, think about how much different business technology was. Windows XP and OS X were released that year. The first iPhone was 6 years in the future, there was no ransomware, POP email was in common use, and there was no Gmail or Office 365. IP phones and video conferencing were unheard of. Virtualization was an unfamiliar concept, and a 1.5Mbit T1 was considered a high-speed Internet connection. The IT systems we used 15 years ago are downright primitive compared with what we use today. Our reliance on and expectations of IT systems have increased dramatically.

IT skills have become more specialized. The development of new technologies in the past 15 years has forced IT workers to become more specialized. For example in 2001, a basic knowledge of HTML was enough to build and publish a business website. Now we expect web 2.0 capabilities with a highly polished look and auto-scaling for mobile browsing. Local-area-networking was far simpler. A basic hub or switch and a NAT’ing firewall were all that was required to connect a business network to the Internet. Now every electronic device connects to the IP network, which requires QoS prioritization of traffic, Power-over-Ethernet, layer-7 inspection, and a myriad of other networking features. Server management requires not just hardware and operating system knowledge, but virtualization and storage management. In every area of IT, increased complexity requires more depth of knowledge, making it less probable that a generalist can perform well.

Mistakes in IT have more dramatic consequences. Hacks of midsize companies, ransomware, and other security threats have forced companies of all sizes to take IT security seriously. A poorly configured firewall or insecure wireless network can lead to a data breach that puts a company out of business. Not only is it more demanding to run an IT department, but the consequences of making a mistake are much greater.

So how can businesses support all areas of IT without blowing the budget on a multi-disciplinary internal team? For small companies, this can be achieved with outsourcing. Midsized companies may use a combination of internal hires and outsourcing. Working with a reputable and established MSP is the most surefire way to ensure you get the skills you need to support your network without breaking the budget or accepting undue risk.

Whatever your size, start by making a list of all the technologies your business relies on for day-to-day operations. A common list would include the following:

  • Desktop support
  • Servers and virtualization
  • Wired networking
  • Wireless networking
  • Network security
  • Mobile device management
  • Website management and maintenance
  • Technology vendor management
  • Printers and copiers
  • Patching
  • Backups and disaster recovery
  • Telecom specifications and contracts
  • Phone system support
  • Line-of-business application support
  • Technology planning and budgets

Now write the name of an individual or company who is responsible for each item. If there are areas without coverage, it probably represents a risk to your organization. Talk to a trusted advisor with technology management experience to get advice on how to fill the gaps.

If you don’t have access to a trusted advisor, or you’re still uncertain after talking to people in your network, CNS can help. We have a deep understanding of the challenges around providing effective IT support, and we’re happy to provide guidance to organizations who are restructuring their IT department. Contact us today for more information about building an IT team that can manage your technology in a reliable and predictable manner.

Stop searching for the unicorn. They’re extinct.

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