Become an Infrastructure Engineer (before it's too late)

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Microsoft Datacenter ChicagoThe Microsoft datacenter in Chicago (shown in the picture) will be one of the world's largest. Like any large datacenter, it's made up of server, storage, network, physical plant infrastructure, and software. The software running on those servers is Windows Server, Hyper-V, and maybe even some Azure cloud computing (among others).

Undoubtedly, the type of IT people who keep it running aren't silo'ed. In other words, there isn't the "server guy", the "network guy", the "storage guy", the "Windows guy", etc. While they may have experts in these more complex areas to contact, the most valuable people in their IT staff are the people that "know it all" and "just make it work".

Why are those "know it alls" so valuable? They have a breadth of knowledge across multiple areas. While these "lynchpins of the infrastructure" may have deep expertise in particular areas, it's their understanding of the multiple disciplines of IT that make them so valuable to this organization (or any company that they might work at).

Typically, these IT Pros with multi-discipline knowledge have various titles that may not reflect what they do. They could be called "Senior Analysts" or even just "Senior Windows Admins" because that is what the company traditionally called them. However, these most valued IT professionals should have a more appropriate title such as "Infrastructure Engineer" (since "IT Lynchpin" or "IT Superhero" don't sound good on a business card) or "Cloud Engineer" (as a "cloud", in IT, requires knowledge in these multiple disciplines to function).

You WANT to be an Infrastructure Engineer

The Infrastructure Engineer (IA) is an IT Pro that:

  • DOESN'T know everything about everything
  • DOESN'T know every area in the datacenter to the point that they never need to call anyone else
  • DOES have a mid-level of understanding of every piece of the IT infrastructure
  • DOES have administration and configuration knowledge of end user applications, Windows Server, Linux, VMware, Cisco networking gear, servers, and storage
  • DOES understand how all these things work together to make end user applications work, and work well
  • DOES know how to troubleshoot problems across all the pieces of infrastructure
  • DOES keep an open mind and is ready to do whatever possible (within IT standards) to make the customers happy and business successful
  • DOES communicate to business people, application owners, and customers in plain English while keeping their needs and the needs of IT in mind
  • and probably does have multiple certifications across various brands and pieces that make up the infrastructure (MCITP, VCP, CCNP, and more)

Most importantly, that person is the "go to" person (or one of them) in IT that make the company what it is. Notice that I didn't say that this person needs a Bachelor's degree from a university. They don't need that to do their job but they may need that to GET their job. Additionally, it may be through that Bachelor's degree that the person learned their communication skills and understanding of the multiple aspects of business such as marketing, accounting, finance, human resources, manufacturing, and so on.

I repeat - YOU WANT TO BE THE Infrastructure Engineer.

The Downsides and Limitations to Single-Area Silos

Why should you want to be this "Infrastructure Engineer"? The alternative is that you work in a silo'ed IT organization where each person has their area of expertise. They usually don't work together well. They don't really understand what the other person does or how their technology works and, because of that, they waste a lot of time finger-pointing.Don't let this be you

Because they depend on others to get their job done not only are they less productive but they also aren't as valuable. Finally, being less valuable, they are less likely to be rewarded (think salary, benefits, conferences and training).

Unfortunately, many IT organizations are still laid out in silos. For example: applications, storage, networking, servers, email, etc.

While most companies may not be moving their infrastructure to hosting companies or "to the cloud" today, it will eventually happen. When it does, you want to have the skills that make you indispensable, either to your current company as a Cloud Architect/Admin or to the cloud computing company where your servers were moved.

Don't be the one guy who only knows how to "fix the fax machines" or the "laser printer expert" or the "storage guy" or the "DHCP admin".

Don't get stuck in a silo! Instead, learn and have that "can do" attitude. Here are some tips ...

Become an Infrastructure Engineer (aka IT Super-Pro) by Learning Four Topics

Above I provided a list of the things that an IT Infrastructure Engineer should and should not do. Those are a great place to start, but for those who are relatively new to IT and, let's say, just have experience as a Windows Server or Desktop Admin, the question I commonly get asked is "where do I start". I try to explain to them that they shouldn't just work to go from being a Windows Desktop Administrator to Server Administrator, to Advanced Windows Admin (silo warning!). Instead, they should focus on obtaining a moderate depth of knowledge and experience in four key areas:

  1. Windows Server Infrastructure - most servers today run Windows Server 2008 and most companies use Active Directory. Even much of the network infrastructure at companies is run using Windows Server's DHCP server, DNS server, VPN, and remote desktop. You can find Windows Server training here.
  2. Network Infrastructure (Cisco) - everything goes through the network. Whether you learn Cisco-specific networking or not, understanding IP networking, subnets, gateways, switches, routers, ACL, wireless, and what's inside a packet will give you a strong foundation. You can find Cisco router and switch training here.
  3. Storage - what's the difference between a SAN and NAS. Should I use NFS or iSCSI? Why should I use RAID 1 vs 5? How do I measure storage latency? Being able to answer questions like these gives you an idea of the types of things you need to know related to storage. For Storage training, I recommend this EMC Press book - Information Storage and Management.
  4. Virtualization & Cloud Computing - if your infrastructure isn't using virtualization and/or cloud computing today, you need to learn it and implement it yourself. It will make IT admins more productive and IT infrastructures more efficient. You can find VMware virtualization training here.

BONUS: your company's applications - all this infrastructure is here to support your company's applications. Understand what they do, why they are important, which ones make money, and how they work together. Do this by talking to application owners and using the applications yourself.

Don't delay! Get started on your path to IT Success by becoming the "Infrastructure Engineer" that no company can live with out!

P.S. - TrainSignal's video training is here to help you out, and we offer a 3-day free trial to access all of courses!

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David Davis

David Davis has authored over 50 courses for Pluralsight around enterprise data center technologies such as cloud computing, virtualization, and (especially) VMware vSphere. He is a partner at where he creates compelling enterprise technology content, moderates online events, and helps to connect some of the best-known technology companies in the industry with the end user community. With over 20 years in enterprise technology, he has served as an IT Manager, administrator, and instructor. David is an 11x VMWare vExpert, VCP, VCAP, & CCIE# 9369.