Engineers and operators have substantially different roles, even though they may appear to interface with similar technologies. It's a common mistake to hire an individual for their engineering skills and then to slowly shift their role into mundane (but necessary) operational tasks. However, when this occurs, you cease to get the true value from your engineering hire– and you risk losing them entirely.
The Evolution of the Engineer to the Operator
Engineers are highly skilled individuals who should be primarily focused on innovation and improvement. Nevertheless, the temptation to shift operational responsibility to their purview is always present– after all, they understand the systems in question and know how to manage them.
It may start with asking them to troubleshoot a few minor issues, but quickly snowballs into performing as-needed full-time support. Ultimately, the engineer becomes expected to perform operational support rather than focusing on their own tasks. Many of these operational support issues may seem "invisible" when the engineer is managing them, as the larger organization won't notice the support issues exist at all.
The Failure of the Operator Engineer
Once evolution to operator has fully developed, the engineer spends his or her time constantly shifting gears, performing low level work for high rates of pay. The engineer's own projects will not reach completion, or quality standards will suffer. Innovation comes to a standstill as the engineer instead focuses on trivial yet essential "turning the crank" activities. He or she finds themselves overworked if they attempt to finish their actual engineering goals, leading to a lack of quality, focus, and a drain on morale.
Ultimately, an operator engineer may quit his or her job entirely as the realization hits that the current workload is not what he or she was actually hired to do. The role of an operator is not fulfilling for many engineers, and the engineer finds he or she is constantly pulled between two disparate positions. This has some additional consequences for the organization: the organization will need to expend both time and money through a new hiring process. And once that hiring process has been completed, there's no guarantee that the same thing won't happen to the next engineer.
Recovering Your Engineering Talent
Recovering your engineering talent from the operator pool is difficult– but not impossible. To avoid the temptation of shifting your engineers toward less valuable tasks, you need to ensure those tasks are properly managed from the beginning. This doesn't need to entail the hiring of specialized workers. Managed service providers and other IT solutions can be used to perform operational tasks without compromising your engineers and the talent they have for innovation.
Hiring engineers only to drown them in operational tasks may seem like an easy solution in the short term, but over time it leads to project failure and the loss of talented engineers. If you want to improve the retention of your IT talent, you'll need to find ways to manage your operational tasks without support from your engineers.