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IT professionals love to learn and develop new skills. With the advent of site reliability engineering and other IT engineer job descriptions, operations professionals should gravitate toward technologies -- and conversations -- that will propel them into engineering positions.
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In the IT world, a rather blurry line distinguishes what makes a job IT operations rather than IT engineering, or vice versa. Many professionals have a mixed role, and particularly with the growth of DevOps methodology, it's become rarer for a person to only be involved in one IT specialization.
What is IT engineering?
There's no single source of truth for the definition of IT operations and how it differs from IT engineering. Many people and employers have their own take on the terms. No specific degree or qualification makes someone an engineer in IT (much to the disgust of some licensed engineers found in other industries).
Generally, IT operations covers break-fix and maintenance work, while the IT engineering scope goes into architecture, builds and change management.
Author's note: The job title of engineer also applies in software development, but developers are not included in the context of this article as their path is generally rather different than that of the rest of IT engineering.
IT pros naturally start at the help desk, and many never fully escape it. An IT operations role is oriented to keep users working, including desktop support and help desk tasks. The IT engineering job description feeds into user support, too: The IT engineer designs, manages and deploys PC rollouts, for example, or plans and executes the enterprise's upgrade to Windows 10 OS.
A systems administrator usually performs aspects of both operations and engineering in their daily work. While they manage user accounts, admins also decommission and replace the organization's unsupported Windows Server 2003 boxes, for example. Systems administration experience is a great way to get into IT engineering, as plenty of the skills apply.
Get an IT engineering job
If you're in an operations role, list the skills and tasks where you excel and overlap them with areas of architecture, building and change. You should already know the outcome you want -- if not, look into IT engineering information more and reassess. To gain IT engineering skills, do some research, test out skills in a nonproduction lab or work with someone that does the engineering tasks related to your current role.
Don't be pushy when trying to get into an IT engineer role. If someone isn't interested in helping you, they're probably going to be of little benefit teaching you new things anyway. Look for good knowledge-sharing opportunities: Often, there's something the IT operations staff can teach the engineering person, too. For example, an IT engineer building a new disaster recovery site and plan for the enterprise would benefit from collaborating with the virtualization admin on high availability and VM management.
Some IT engineering job descriptions include specific qualifications, though this is far from a rule. It's more common to find that experience trumps qualifications in IT. Many job listings call for a college or university degree. Beyond that, IT engineer prerequisites are usually industry-specific, such as a certification from VMware, Microsoft, Red Hat and other vendors. Certifications usually require you to sit an exam that proves a certain level of knowledge; they can help demonstrate an eagerness to progress your career. While proven knowledge on specific platforms and tools is important, experience defines IT engineering scope and skills, so get as involved as possible into engineering work while doing operations.
Operations after IT engineering
As mentioned earlier, it's rare to have an IT engineering role with little to no operations exposure. To be successful, the IT engineer must understand what operational effects a new service -- or a change to an existing service -- will bring. Nobody wins when IT engineering isn't done in a way that benefits the business.
Without some distinct role or company change, you'll find the move from operations to engineering is a gradual process.
Voice interest in a new project -- this is a way to engage with colleagues and put yourself in a position to learn and see how things are done in an IT engineering job. Even if you attend meetings and observe changes around the IT estate, exposure to discussions and processes will help you piece together the parts that make up this coveted job. When a project goes poorly, that can be a more valuable learning experience than when it goes smoothly. Note what things affected success from the engineering perspective: Was enough attention paid during the project's design phase? Did the organization skimp on testing or gathering feedback? With support experience from IT operations, you could prevent problems like these.
Learn and understand what you can, and don't abandon IT operations skills -- they will add to IT engineering success.
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