It hurts to hunt for a job in IT infrastructure right now. Every rejection finds new ways to embarrass and frustrate you. Even the offers carry painful tradeoffs. Cloud has changed the job options for infrastructure engineers. There are no perfect jobs, but there are opportunities.
I’ve seen five types of companies hiring infrastructure engineers. Each has rewards and risks.
Legacy Whale — On-Premises Tech Giants
Legacy infrastructure companies put profit over growth — including yours. Their market may be shrinking, but they still run enterprises’ most important applications. The last company standing will charge a premium for their technology. That’s why the legacy giants need engineers to deliver products for their core markets.
- Salary. They pay good salaries from their profit margins.
- Enterprise Experience. You learn how to work with a mature product for enterprise customers.
- Layoffs. Profit comes when you earn more than you spend. Products that need incremental development don’t need expensive engineers.
- Stagnation. You’re working on the same product for the same customers. Everything is incremental. You’re missing sweeping technical and business trends.
- Left too Late. If you stay too long, interviewers will wonder why. Were you too lazy to move? Too comfortable? Nobody wanted you?
The legacy whales can be a lucrative home, and they teach you how to work with big customers. You just have to ask, “When is the right time to jump ship?”
Legacy Piranha — On-Premises Startups
Legacy piranha companies have to grow fast. The legacy market may be shrinking, but it’s still huge. The legacy whales can’t always move fast enough to block small companies (either with technology or sales). Some piranhas can eat enough of the whales to IPO or get bought.
- System View: You design products from scratch, so you can see new parts of the system
- Customer Experience: In a smaller company, you can work directly with customers.
- Financial Upside: If the company takes off, so does your equity.
- Limited growth: Piranhas need you to do what you’ve done before. The race is on, and they can’t afford to train you on something else.
- No market: In a shrinking market, everything has to be perfect. The product. The go-to-market. And you need the whale to miss you. For every Pure or Rubrik, there are a dozen Tintri and Primary Data.
The legacy piranhas can be an exciting gamble. You can see the whole system and work with hands-on customers. You just have to ask, “What happens if this fails?”
Killer Whales — The Big 3 in Public Cloud
The killer whales (AWS, Azure, Google Cloud) control the new ocean of IT infrastructure. They’re taking share in the growing market of public cloud. The customers, requirements, and technology are different from the legacy environment. Their scale dwarfs even the largest enterprises. The problems are the same, but the rules are different.
- New Technology: Killer whales mix commodity technology with bleeding edge. They must innovate to stay ahead.
- New Perspective: The scale is orders of magnitude greater than what we’re used to. The integration of the stack eliminates our silo’ed view.
- Growth: The killer whales can afford to pay and give new opportunities.
- Getting Hired: They have their pick of new hires. They may see your experience as a limitation, since they want to build things in a new way.
- Succeeding: The environment is different. The way you did things won’t work. They’re moving fast. You’re going to be very uncomfortable.
- Limited Customer Interaction: At their scale, it’s difficult to get direct customer interaction. You’re one of the masses building for the masses.
The killer whales will be an exciting ride that sets you up for the future. You just have to ask, “Am I ready?”
Inside the Blue Whales — Joining IT
Some of the biggest companies in the world build their own IT infrastructure. They create some of the most interesting infrastructure innovation (e.g. Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Medtronic, Tesla). Nothing makes infrastructure requirements more real than building an application on top of it.
- New Technology: You’re building custom technology because vendors’ products don’t work for them.
- New Perspective: The scale and integration with business applications changes how you view infrastructure.
- Growth: You could move from infrastructure to the building the application.
- Getting Hired and Making a Difference. See “Killer Whales”.
- You’re a Cost Center: When you build the product, you are the business. When you provide services for the product, you’re a cost center. At Morgan Stanley, an IT member advised me, “Don’t work here. We’re the most innovative technical company on Wall Street, but we’re still the help. The traders are the business. Never be the help.”
The Blue Whales are technology users that push the boundaries of infrastructure. You just have to ask, “Am I comfortable being a cost center?”
Riding the Killer Whales — Building on the Public Cloud
The Killer Whales can’t do everything well. No matter how quickly they hire, they can’t build decades of functionality in a few years. Furthermore, nobody wants to lock into one Killer Whale. They know how that story ends. That’s why companies are adding multi-cloud infrastructure services on top of the public cloud.
- New Technology: You’re riding the new technology, trying to tame it.
- New Perspective: You learn how companies are trying to use public cloud and what challenges they face. You can see how they’re evolving from legacy to public cloud.
- Upside: If the company takes off, so do you. You’re the expert in a new market area. Oh, and the financial equity will be rewarding, too.
- No Market: You have the traditional startup concerns (funding, customers, competitors) and more. You worry that the killer whales will add your functionality as a free service. You worry that the killer whales will break your product with their newest APIs. Riding killer whales is scary!
- Financial Downside: Low salary. Even lower job security.
Some Killer Whale Riders will become the next great technology infrastructure companies. You just have to ask, “How much risk am I comfortable with?”
A decade ago, even incompetent IT infrastructure vendors could grow 10% a year because the market was so strong. No more. Today, there are no infrastructure jobs without risk. Of course, there are still great opportunities.
I’m riding the killer whales because I’d gotten disconnected from new technology and new customer challenges. The risk is terrifying, but I’ve never been happier. The choice was right for me.
What did you choose and why?