RIP, Computer Guys

(Rant Warning: This article is a departure from my normal tone. I’ve dealt with this issue far too many times to word it less strongly. I hope you’ll bear with me.)

You wrote the cover letter. You submitted the resume. They knew who you were, what you could do, and why you were interested in the position before you even walked in the door. Now that you’re sitting down and talking, though, they throw you a curve ball. Can you do X? Um, no… of course you can’t do X. If you could, you would’ve said so by now! Besides, if they wanted someone who could do X, why didn’t they say that in the ad!?

If you’ve ever been on an IT job hunt, you’ve probably run into this problem before. Many potential IT employers have the mistaken notion that you’re just another “computer guy,” and that all computer guys must know X, Y, and Z. It’s just common sense, right?

I like to call this the myth of the computer guy. Far too many employers of IT personnel don’t understand IT themselves. That’s not a problem in and of itself; after all, that’s why they’re hiring. When they take their ignorance of such an expansive array of subjects and lump it under the heading of “computer stuff,” however, they do IT workers a grave disservice.

Let me ask you this. Just because you can translate ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, does that mean you know how to manage an archaeological dig site? Just because you’re a novelist, does that mean you can write newspaper articles? Of course not. These are related skills, for sure, but they’re nonetheless exclusive to one another. Why, then, when I say I’m a web developer, would you assume that I’m also a server administrator, or a web designer, or a support technician?

I have a confession. I know tons about making websites, but I know next to nothing about computer hardware. I know how to work a computer just fine, but if you ask me to assemble one from scratch, I’m as much in the dark as the next guy. Much like other IT professionals, I’ve developed a specialized skill set to handle a specialized field of information technology.

The reality is there’s too much to know. Decades ago, when information technology was in its infancy, computer guys did exist because much of the knowledge available today hadn’t been developed. They were Renaissance men, polymaths, experts who knew every in and out of a burgeoning field of study.

In the 21st century, though, the all-in-one computer guy is long extinct. Instead of one person who knows everything about computers, you have a dozen who know everything about different aspects of computing. You’ve got database administrators, online marketers, computer engineers, network administrators, graphic designers… The skills necessary to be competent in any one discipline are now so intensive that specialization is a fact of life.

Here, then, is my plea to IT employers. Please, for sanity’s sake, recognize that computer guys don’t exist anymore. They were killed off a long time ago by information overload. In the modern era, there is no longer one person who has every computer skill you need to make your business work. Even if there were, you couldn’t hire them for less than the fortune they would be worth. Instead of expecting every IT professional to live up to this antiquated ideal, take the time to identify the skills you really need and hire as many IT professionals as it takes to get the job done.

9 thoughts on “Death of the Computer Guy

  1. I often have a very similar problem. When I look for online journalism jobs, the ads expect you to not only know how to write and publish online articles, you need to know how to edit and produce video. You need to know how to design a website and write code. You need to have all these technical skills that have very little to do with online journalism.

    Employers don’t understand they’re essentially advertising for two different jobs. You can have an online editor and you can have a site design guy, it’s rare that you’ll be able to find both in one.

  2. Glad to hear it’s not limited to the IT industry, Simon. I wonder how pervasive the problem is. Do all employers really expect an ordinary employee to have the skills to cover ten different positions? Are they just trying to get more bang for their staffing buck, or are they really naive enough to think people like this exist, or will work for a normal salary no less?

  3. Excellent post Stephen. I run into this all the time. It is too bad since employers will dismiss the first few interviewees before they start to clue in that maybe nobody knows how to do everything.

    Thankfully I found a job with a company that recognizes the vast differences in many parts of IT.

  4. Unfortunate and true, Justin. It makes me wonder whether the only people who are truly qualified to hire IT professionals are IT professionals themselves. Out of curiosity, do the people who hired you fit this description?

  5. I am the computer guy. Ask me how to do anything, and if I don’t know how to do it, I’ll say I do and learn, as well as execute, before it needs to be done. Sorry, the “computer guy” still does exist, but the margins for success under this term are just becoming smaller.

  6. Not to refute your expertise, Boris, but saying and being are two different things. Certainly there are plenty of capable IT workers out there who, like yourself, are willing and able to learn whatever needs to be done. I like to think I fit into that category, as well. The sort of “computer guy” I’m saying has died, here, is the one who knows it all without needing to learn, the sort that can do anything with a computer already.

    Of course, I’m sure it’s plausible, in the right environment, to effectively fake it. I’ve known plenty of guys who knew so much that we could only speculate what they didn’t know. Still, my assertion is that it’s impractical for employers to expect any IT worker to know everything, especially if they plan to pay them an ordinary IT worker salary.

  7. Note to self: Posts about interviews tend to make your supervisor believe you’re job-hunting. Try to avoid them or make it absolutely clear that you’re not so you don’t give him a heart attack when he reads them. 😉

  8. The computer guys are not dead. They’re limited to a specific age group. There are about a decade’s worth of us. We grew up when computers started to turn into PC’s and probably remember when 128kb was fking huge.

    We started early, and grew with it, learning and contributing as it developed.

    People older than this decade have had to change their existing views and adapt to new and foreign things. Usually they are a little resentful of this and will have “stupid computer” complaints.

    People younger than this have too much historical learning to do to catch up properly, so they focus on learning one area.

    The computer guy is blessed and cursed with the ability to learn at the rate of development because he always has.

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