Linux

IT Pros: Is it better to generalize or specialize?

It's always a dilemma for IT pros -- be a specialist or a generalist? Is one more dangerous than the other? Brad Bird shares his experience dealing with this question.

Ah, the IT market...

Which path should you choose? Should you become an expert in Microsoft products, or should you become an expert in Unix or Linux? Or should you follow the Apple path?

Now, once you have selected a technology, do you specialize even further? Perhaps in e-mail administration? Communications, security, or end user support? There are a lot more questions where these came from.

Additionally, you could become a programmer to build applications and solutions, or you could become an application specialist, learning all the ins and outs of an application or a suite of applications like Microsoft Office.

I often find myself wondering if it is wise to specialize too much. On one hand, an expert in any product area is desirable and highly sought after to accomplish business goals and help any company's employees remain productive in their industry. In this day and age, most companies rely on information technology, and any competitive company needs technology to remain viable, even if their IT is outsourced rather than found in house.

If you are a specialist and the demand for that specialty decreases, you are forced to broaden your skill set in order to remain a desirable resource in this economy.

My view on this subject is to remain flexible. Technology is ever changing, and what is the hot technology now may be forgotten when the next best technology comes out.

In my career, I have spent the most time working with Microsoft products. Interestingly enough, I had just completed my Microsoft Certified System Engineer certification when I was hired by an e-commerce company. There, I worked as a junior systems administrator; ninety percent of my job duties were performed on Sun Solaris! Still, it gave me the occasion early on to learn Unix, and even though it's not what I was prepared for, since then I've kept up with my reading to follow where Linux is going -- just in case.

The skill sets acquired from one technology are often transferable to another with some minor adjustments. You just have to be willing to be flexible and make the change. Technology improves based on need, but it does not adapt to us; we need to adapt to technology and remain open to change.

I went to school with a colleague who helped me in my Java class. This colleague was a fantastic lab partner, and I learned a lot from him. My colleague was a Linux and Macintosh fanatic. He disagreed with the Microsoft mentality and was true to Linux and Macintosh. At the time, I shared this view with him.

Now guess where my colleague works. I'll give you a hint. He knows "where he wants to go today."

What do you think is the best approach for preparing yourself for an IT career? If you've been working as an IT pro for a while, do you still think it's a rewarding field to go into?

About

Brad Bird is a lead technical consultant and MCT certified trainer based in Ottawa, ON. He works with large organizations, helping them architect, implement, configure, and customize System Center technologies, integrating them into their business pr...

27 comments
JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

As my 'name' suggests, I recommend maintaining competency in myriad disciplines while focusing on the 'hot' items currently in demand. My current employer needs me to handle mainframe (IBM Z/OS), Windows servers and desktops (including apps such as Office, Outlook, etc.), Unix (AIX and Solaris), Cisco routers, Avaya phones, and anything else that comes up. I don't have to be expert in all those, but I need to know enough to fix most things and triage the rest. I could be wrong but I seriously doubt I have to worry about job security.

fish7170
fish7170

the "is it better" part of the question depends on what makes you happy ... what you think is "better". a successful team needs to have every proverbial base covered, of course. and if you work for a small company, as many of us did in the beginning, you may need to be jack of all trades for a time. soon enough though, we all find things we dont like, and things we do like. when i gained the appropriate experience and seniority i headed in directions that made me individually happy. then, oddly enough, i also got even better at those specialty things, which oddly enough meant my income increased significantly from when i was the jack of everything. part of what makes me happy is spending time with my kids. i've also found the narrower i define my happy niche the more money i make ... which, for me means i can cut back the hours i spend away from my kids ... which makes my family happy too.

PolarCityBlues
PolarCityBlues

I found that, while working in Africa for a decade, I'd become a specialist in generalisation. Settling down in the UK after getting married that leaves me qualified for absolutely nothing, according to every I.T. manager who has rejected my CV in the last two years. I have to admit the skills I apparently didn't pick up were self-advertising and CV writing, but I'd also say it's important to be sharp in a _marketable_ skill and then anything else you can bring to the table is a bonus.

jkameleon
jkameleon

... if you plan to remain in the profession for more than a couple of years. After this period, any specialist knowledge becomes obsolete.

mlc02
mlc02

I've been thinking about that lately. Fortunately i am able to work in diverse IT tasks. Be it desktop support, infrastructure, Storage mgnt, Switching. But i think its best to anchor on one specialty while being a "jack" of all trades everything else.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Not tools. Rare but lucrative is Systems Integration Specialist A nice useful subset of that, is client server database developer The number of tools I've used to do this is huge. I'm not a generalist, I'm multi-skilled.

rmlounsbury
rmlounsbury

As the only true IT person in a company of just over 100 employees I have little choice but to be a generalist. I yearn to be a specialist so when I'm at work it isn't a constant "let me research that; it's never happened before." I like Linux and Microsoft so I hope eventually to get an MCSE and Linux + certification. My original background was Cisco and data networks and would also like to acquire a CCNA at the least CCNP at the most. At least then I'm still a swiss army knife but with a bit more focus. ;)

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

I've gone down the ITIL road and I focus on ITSM. To make matters worse (better?), I'm totally focused on my companies suite(s), so that while I am very knowledgeable, it's fairly narrow.

sidekick
sidekick

Looking at the market now as compared to when I first got into IT, it seems like there are more oppurtunities for specialists now. There is still room for generalists, and probably will be for a long time, but as technology expands and becomes more complicated, more and more specialists will be needed.

ericswain
ericswain

I can only talk about the path I've taken and where I am at today. I have always been the type of person that has to have a working knowlege of everything I do; whether it's working on a car, building a fence, or wiring my house for surround sound being a generalist has helped me in my development as an IT leader. Having a working knowledge of the how the business operates makes you better understand you role. Working with non technical people give you the understanding of what your end user is going through on a daily basis and talking with department heads about the struggles they are having helps you convey to your team or vendors the needs and priorities of the technical side of the company. In the field of IT knowing that you are not stuck in one field helps you open paths to different areas of IT that you may or may not like but can jot down on your resume of things that you know how to do. In a time where most companies look for general IT help because they either don't have the funding to pay for single process employees or want techs who can support other techs in crunch times keeps those who can ahead of those who can't. Specialist are great, I mean people who know the nutts and bolts of what they are doing is great but with technology everything changes and sometimes even the job titles or duties and not having at least a working knowledge of the other areas of IT could cost you in the future.

sidekick
sidekick

It doesn't matter if you specialize or generalize. If you don't keep up with the technology as it evolves, you become outdated. Someone who specialized in, let's say Novell, hopefully saw the decline in demand and learned new skills in, let's say Microsoft. The concepts of systems administration are basically the same, just have to learn the specific software. Or let's say you were a COBOL programmer. You probably needed to learn a new language to stay employed, but it was probably more of an issue of learning syntax than concepts. Either way, you need to keep yourself relevant.

Netlord80
Netlord80

There is an old saying, "jack of all trades...master of none". To many larger employers that would likely be viewed as a lack of focus. I've been with companies both large and small, and I have found that it is wise to have a few specialties that are in demand. The trick is to pick ones that are likely to be arround for a long time. For myself, I have a general knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, but I specialize in messaging (Exchange), Active Directory, and IP Networking. These specialties have actually positioned me quite well to maintain my marketability in a tough economy. The issue with being a generalist, is that you don't stand out. Finding the right ballence is key. Lots of people are looking for the same jobs that you would be right now, and it is always helpful if you can say that you are an expert in some discipline that the employer needs.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Most people when they talk about specialisation in IT, are talking Windows NT4 SP3 Administrator Guru, or some other nippledheaded tool based contraint.

gmds
gmds

You have to be specializing in at least two fields and then also have good working knowledge of surrounding important technologies. If I'm an Administrator in Windows Servers and know the inside out completely, I will also be required to know my way around Cisco, VMWare and possible Linux as well. That goes the same for an entry-level to a midrange Cisco professional as well; they also will need to know other technologies used in a computer network as well such as, Linux, Storage and backup etc. That's what you need in your experience and on your resume to remain marketable. Once you get the job, it really depends on size of the IT environment of the employer. If its a very large one, the responsibilities? will be split in function groups, hence creating sort of specialized teams, for example, Storage, Servers, Networking and further broken down into Exchange etc. If it?s a smaller to medium environment, the chances are you will be involved in more that 1, two or three technologies and turning into more a well planted generalist with very good, close to specialized skills. - More strong in some technologies than the others. Ideally, 2nd one is my favourite. It gives one an opportunity to be more skilled and marketable with a much diversified skill set.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

As one of my managers said, "It must really piss you off." "What?" I replied. "That you can't know everything." Thinking about it then, he was right. So, I've settled on knowing a little bit of this and that, and then specialize on as many subjects as possible.

lastdisciple
lastdisciple

It comes down to 2 things: If I specialize in one area, can I find a job tomorrow if I end up jobless? Am I more marketable by generalizing, just in case I have to find a job tomorrow? It has been my experience that the more areas I can work in I am more valuable to my employer.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

you aren't yet a specialist. I've lost count of the HR Numpties, who've said. Oh you've only used version 4? Going from Cobol, you are going to have to pick up some concepts, for say becoming a windows programmer. That's more like going from RS232 to Ethernet.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

An expert is someone who knows a great deal about very little. Don't get me wrong experts are useful, and there is a market for them, but by definition a small one. I mean if linux took off you are stuffed until you re-tool. Given you are that good with MS technologies, you certainly could move over to a non ms messaging environment, but you try convince a HR numpty of that. That's why I describe myself as a client server database developer, currently working with, who has also worked with... Try to avoid the ignorant confusing the tool with the skill, or you are a novice as soon as the next version comes out.

jdclyde
jdclyde

would be like me wanting to work with networking, but not just routers.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

I mean I do the IIS thing, the SQL thing, the Windows thing, but at this point it seems to me that it's more of a typical sys admin type role than anything amazing.

ericswain
ericswain

There have been countless times when Programmers have been asked "How-To" questions for end users only to get the "I don't know" respose, and then have the End User say, "but you work in IT don't you"? In our profession we are expected to know everything about everything and when we don't it's makes our department look bad. Now I'm not saying that we need to know everything but if we can at least have a working knowledge then we know we can at least have a starting point. I know as a manager I look for people to be team players and build their knowledge base in areas they may not "Specialize" in. The day techs stop learning is the day that tech is no longer good to me.

j_tcicatello
j_tcicatello

This reminds me of a joke a I heard during freshman orientation in college, the chancellor was giving a welcome speech Definition of a Generalist ? someone who learns less and less about more and more until finally they know nothing about everything Definition of a Specialist ? someone who learns more and more about less and less until finally they know everything about nothing

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I learn something. I like learning and as you say it would be very hard to be in IT (except management) if I didn't. Way back when, when I did basic support and admin, I went from RS232 to Ethernet. It was real head scratcher. Fun things like having 5 vampire taps to fit and only 2 metres of cable exposed. :p I never assume someone's an idiot for not knowing something, assuming they do know something...... :D

sidekick
sidekick

Personally, I don't think it is possible to be in IT, even if you are a specialist, and not have to keep learning. It's one of the reasons I got into IT to begin with. Keeps me from getting bored. It would be nice if someone could get that through to some of these HR people. Ya, I know version 4, so it won't be hard for me to pick up version 5. It's the nature of the business. As far as the Cobol, I just picked a random language that, from what I understand, is rarely used anymore to make a point. I guess I should pick something I'm more familiar with next time. Sorry. I generally try not speak about things I don't know much about. Thanks for not launching into a tirade about my presumed idiocy. I think we see too much of that around here sometimes.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

networking? My knowledge of networking, is seriously out of date. I know enough to know latency might be an issue, and if I write some software that batters the crap out of it, I can expect a kick in the ass from one of you guys. On the other side of the wall, I watched a system I wrote die on it's arse when the network guys took out a subnet for maintenance that included the local dc, the remote one was somewhere in alpha centauri on a slip comnnection as I far as I could make out.

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

And I love it. It's frustrating and exciting at the same time! I'll never have to worry about not having something new to learn.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

I'd still like to learn everything. In a way being in IT is like being a shark, if we stop moving forward we start dying.

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