Leadership

Are you an IT specialist or an IT generalist?


I have a question for you – how many of you reading this are IT pro specialists or IT pro generalists?  I ask because it’s a question I periodically struggle with, and I still haven’t arrived at a solution that sticks as “the answer.”  Have you picked a core product or specialty, such as Exchange (messaging) or Citrix MetaFrame (thin client), and mastered it?   Has it become your calling card that you hang your hat on when interviewing for jobs?

What prompted me to ponder this topic again was, of all things, a sales call received last week.  I usually am quick to hang up on cold calls, but this guy kept me on the phone a bit longer than normal with an offer for lunch (I know, but I’m a sucker for food and golf outings, not necessarily in that order).  It turned out the salesman wanted to talk to someone from our “Messaging Team.”  The funny thing is we really don’t have a messaging team.  Sure, I and one other person are primarily responsible for managing Exchange, but it is one small piece of what we manage every day.  It by no means gets our full attention because we are not solely dedicated to that one system.

One would think that after more than twelve years in IT I could pick a specialty and run with it.  And maybe I have.  More than half of my professional career has been spent in healthcare IT working on client/server infrastructure projects, primarily on the Windows platform.  But take away the fact that I’m in the healthcare industry and it is still a fairly broad scope of potential responsibilities.  I call this dabbling.  I’ve dabbled with VMware virtualization tools.  I’ve dabbled with Citrix technologies.  I’ve dabbled with Active Directory, and so on.  I also feel like I’ve been exposed to every poorly written healthcare software package ever released.  The problem with this scenario is a person becomes proficient with many technologies and master of none.  The question then is – is it better to specialize in one area or merely be average in many? 

The answer mostly lies with what you want to get out of your IT career, and how you got to where you are now.

I know plenty of IT pros that have chosen to focus on one technology and have made specializing in it their IT profession.  They are very good at what they do, but they have also lost some of the skills they used to possess with other systems.  With time, it happens if you don’t work with other products or perform other tasks on a regular basis.  You become very limited in your technical skill set.  A lot can change in the IT field in a short amount of time so past skills can quickly become out of touch or stale.  People in this specialist niche are often found working as consultants and/or for a solutions provider commanding higher salaries and traveling often.

Sometimes the decision to become a generalist or specialist may be made for you depending on the companies you have worked for.  Most of us started out in IT as generalists, taking whatever job we could find to get our foot in the door and expand our future opportunities.  We began wearing multiple hats of responsibility and most of us still do today.  Where this is especially true is at small to mid-size companies.  Smaller companies often don’t have the budget or personnel to employ multiple specialists, and frankly, most don’t have the need.  One or two IT pros can be hired to manage the network and everything connected.  Generalists in this sense often have more options in the job market, but typically earn less than a specialist.

In the end, I still don’t have “the answer” to whether it is better to be an IT specialist or an IT generalist.  I have a feeling I will be considering this debate again in the future.  Both routes have their pros and cons.  Post your comments and let me know your thoughts and experiences.

33 comments
jeffld
jeffld

I would consider myself to be a IT Generalist, however in the list of skills and technologies that I've worked with over the years, I've recently thought about converting to a specialist. The question then becomes what do I enjoy the most and what am I best at? I really enjoy mastering a particular skill and using it effectively. As an example, I'll share some of the highlights of my career to illustrate my point. I believe that I've been many specialists. The believe key is to adapt and to keep learning new technology. I have an great passion for learning new things. In the beginning of my career, I worked primarily on IBM PC-DOS and MS-DOS computers before the invention of windows. I wrote programs in standard C using the Borland compiler. I wrote dozens of command line programs to do special things to help automate the work that I did in converting customer data. After Windows came into the marketplace, I learned VB6 so that I could build programs with a GUI so that as the department grew, others that came into the company with little or now command line experience could do some of the functions using windows. I had a hard time letting go of the DOS prompt. I still love the command prompt, I also have Linux, UNIX experience and use the shell instead of a GUI. Then, as VB6 because VB6 was nearing its life cycle with Microsoft, I moved on to .NET programming. Since I had experience with C, it was easy to do both VB.NET and C#.NET It was at this same time that I also got into VBA with Microsoft Excel since it was a very easy transition to go from VB6 to VBA. Then later in my career, I was asked to continue to support all the prior functions that I've been doing and take on some System Administration functions. This involved troubleshooting, creating user accounts, providing technical support for internal and external customers. On the side outside of my profession, I tried to keep up with some of the web standards. I learned PHP and HTML and created a Wordpress blog so that I could keep in touch with the Internet Marketplace.

maxwell edison
maxwell edison

I'm an IT generalist specializing in providing all IT needs for the production of a specific product.

GNX
GNX

I am a generalist if that is a tech that does more than 20 different things. I fix pc's, printers, copiers, faxes, fix and maintain the network and its servers, answer stupid questions, change light bulbs and operate the AS400. And because I have an awesome tool set, I can fix anything aound the office.

Your Mom 2.0
Your Mom 2.0

Just based on my personal experience at my current employer, I'd say that the generalists are of more value as management than specialists are. Keep in mind that managers are managing people; a manager has a staff for completing specialized tasks, and a manager's job is to see that their crew can do their jobs. I may be "generalizing" a bit (no pun intended), but from what I've seen, a programmer who is chained to their chair all day doesn't get the opportunity to hone the necessary 'soft skills' for leading people. Someone with a narrow yet advanced skill set is who you'd need for a specific role or task; you'll find that the generalists are usually more well-rounded and can liaison with non-techs (upper management) easier. For example, at my company, we have a staff of three programmers, one programmer / database guy, the VP of IT, and myself. The programmers spend most (if not all) of their time writing code. The programmer / database guy is currently involved in a project to export the item database to a web-based ordering system. I handle most fo the day-to-day tasks (AD admin, end-user support, email admin, networking issues, and various AIX troubleshooting). My boss deals with most of the long-term / "big picture" planning and project management but is familiar enough with what everyone else does so that he can assist when needed.

Jaqui
Jaqui

I do my best to keep up on all areas of IT, be it hardware or software, but I specialise in P.O.S.I.X. operating systems so I get to completely ignore all the MS crap. [ MS removed support for the P.O.S.I.X. standard with win98, and have never expressed any interest in adding it back. ] I further refine this smaller set to only those technologies that are meeting standards set by International Consortiums, such as the W3C for web stuff, ISO for language specifications. [ Which removes Macos stuff, since Apple created a non standards compliant technology for the os api. ] Anything standard that can be altered by one company is not a standard to be supported. A Standard has to be a compromise betweeen all interests to be effective, and to be stable enough to actually rely on it. MS' .net framework is never going to fit that description, since MS will never give control of the standard for it up. cocoa, the api for macos is the same as .net, useless outside of the ONE os.

Zen37
Zen37

I started out, like you said, as a generalist for small companies that did not need or could afford specialist. I personally think that it's best to start as a generalist anyway. You get to see so much, different systems, different mentality, different methods, etc. It pays to have a broad spectrum when you start. After a while, i notice i liked networks very much. I use to say i wanted to be a system synergy specialist. I became a Telecommunication analyst, not so far off i think. But you know what. I had more fun when i had my nose in all sorts of different stuff. Pros of specialists: better pay, less hassle because you have less systems to take care of, you get to really know your stuff and it makes you really good at what you do. Cons of specialists: You don't get to see the whole picture most of the time. There are some things you cannot fix because it does not fall under your jurisdiction. Finding a job is more difficult since the employers hiring specialist are less than generalists.

Tig2
Tig2

I started in the industry as an Admin. As in assistant to the VP Sales of a television station. Because of the vision of the man I worked for, I had a great degree of latitude in helping our technology move forward. At the time the availible people were a guy from accounting and a guy from research. We pulled cable, punched things down and did a LOT of RTFM. And we made it work. I have had to be flexible in my career. I have written code in a variety of languages, but am not a developer, coder, or programmer. I simply understand what solving those problems looks like. I have pulled cable to both the desktop and the rack. I have terminated and punched down that cable. I am not a cable puller. I could be, I guess. I understand business and I understand technology. I can speak to both. As a Project Manager, I get projects that require that the job gets done. Some times, I go there and do that. At the end of the day, I am a go-er, a do-er, a think-er, and a business partner. I am a catalyst for change and a manger of that change. I am a proponent for security based on the industry I serve. I guess that makes me a generalist. Not a bad place to be... but only my opinion.

onbliss
onbliss

I have taught computer classes, been involved in installing and supporting SCO UNIX and Novell Netware and then moved to programming. Though I have programmed in several languages in the past, the last decade or so it has been restricted to Microsoft. The last few years it has been just .Net. So, I have lost lots of things that I learnt in the past, and would consider myself as a .net guy. But I am far from being an expert. You can say I am an "average .net guy" who can get the work done.

cjbowser
cjbowser

I've been in IT for about 15 years, always specializing in Business Intelligence and ERP systems. In my current job, however, cut backs in the IT staff have forced me to become a generalist, doing everything from what I specialize in to troubleshooting thermal events on PCs and maintaining the phone system :-( When the time for cut backs came, my knowledge of ERP and reporting was deemed the most valuable to the ongoing health of the business, and the powers that be felt I could pick up the other stuff on my own. I've learned a lot...

mabingle
mabingle

Well, I am obviously a generalist since I've been in management for over 20 years. Before that I was a handson techie and pretty good I have been told. Those were the fun days. However, if you reard the boards, you will note that even the call for a manager level requires you to be a specialist in certain areas. Actually, I think the people who create some of these job requierements are smoking dope while they do it, or are angry at their kids or spouses and want to get even with the world.

jdclyde
jdclyde

I have many hats that I get the joy of wearing all the time, but the main calling is net/sys admin. It isn't locked in as specific as some are, but in an ever changing field, is it really good to have everything revolving around a single product? My goal is to start teaching Cisco and Linux in the spring. This would be a side job on top of what I do now. You learn topics better by going over them, and what better way to go over something than to get PAID to do it? This in turn will make me more valuable to my current employer. I do "dabble" with hardware as needed, but it is far from my calling.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

to specialise in something like exchange. I can't afford to specialise in say Oracle, I can't afford to specialise in a particular language. In fact being a senior developer I can't even afford to specialise in programming. Sometimes I need to write code to set up environments, to do that sensibly I have to know how to administer them. Sometimes I need to write code that works in different environments. Even something as superficially simple as creating a database can have a serious impact. Not knowing at least the basic principles and the specifics relevant to the task in hand would leave me floundering and or increase the cost of the development.

JamesRL
JamesRL

I didn't go to school for IT. I stumbled into IT in 1985 and worked at a company that wrote software development tools. I've worked in many aspects of IT. I've done marketing and sales, been a consultant on PCs/Macs/Networks, done project management, managed servers, wrote Lotus Notes apps, done Help desk/desktop support, managed support people. I think being a generalist helped me in going to management. Part of my strength has been that because I have worked in a lot of different roles, I can bridge well between groups. James

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

Why poke the sleeping zombies? Wizard57M TR Moderator

Daniel.Muzrall
Daniel.Muzrall

and have been in all my jobs. Currently I am the network adminstator at my location. I maintain 3 servers, 2 autoloaders, the network, desktops, laptops, networked multi-function devices, install hardware and software, move equipment, configure GPS units for field use, operate our Geoprobe direct-push rig for soil borings, conduct HAZMAT emergency responses, conduct Level A/WMD/CBRNE sampling and operations, run our GIS operations, generate aerial dispersion models/plots, attempt (usually successfully) to fix anything that has a power cord, run environmental monitoring instruments, write and review environmental sampling reports, drive/operate a 35' mobile command post, provide training on GPS, GIS, computers, environmental work, etc. As you can see, I'm definitely a generalist. I'm generally involved in everything we do in my office!

technette41
technette41

I consider myself to be a specialist at being a generalist. MS in IS emphasis in GIS and a few certs. Experienced working in hybrid position for 15 years for small software developers and start up divisions of larger companies and engineering firms. Always hired to report to President or CFO of the company. Also Six Sigma Certified and can make any process profitable. My projects involve financial management, implementation and training on new software & ERP systems, designing DBMS, Web Design, systems analysis, project analysis...can code too in a few language.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I'm a generalist specializing in hardware. I can pull, punch, install, configure, code, maintain, and repair. But my favorite part is turning screws. Edit: forgot a couple...

Kiltie
Kiltie

You can be a Specialist, but that is no good by itself, by necessity you have to become a Generalist in many areas to support that Speciality. Similarly, being a Generalist won't get you very far, you [i]have to[/i] develop a Speciality in order to progress. (if only to keep from getting bored... LOL) :) ;-)

david
david

Know one knows it all. But, what I have settled on is knowing an enviroment. And even if they don't admit it most IT staff are specialist in a given enviroment. My experance is in the Microsoft Enviroment. Mostly from a DBA and developers perspective. While I feel comforatable taking on most task in this enviroment, I would not feel comfortable taking on the same task in say a unix enviroment. So in some ways I am a specialist (MS Env) and at the same time I am a generalist (Dev., DBA, Architect and Sys. Admin.). I like it this way. I can know the envirment well. There is plenty of demand for my skill set. And I am not so specialized that working on a long project with older technologies takes me out of the game.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I was a one man shop IT wise for about five years, pain in the ass, but I had to add an extra page to the cv to fits my skills on it. Wouldn't call myself an expert, but I did help keep a 24/7 manufacturing plant's Process Control system running very successfully for a long time. Got me a few jobs that were more than programming out of it as well, particularly the DBA side.

Kiltie
Kiltie

[b]"Actually, I think the people who create some of these job requierements are smoking dope while they do it, or are angry at their kids or spouses and want to get even with the world."[/b] You have a very good point there, I am sure that we all know what you mean ;-) :)

jaysona
jaysona

From my own experience being a generalist allows many doors to be open. The jack of all trades and master of none applies very much so if you are a generalist. In a small to medium sized company wearing many hats is almost always the norm. Specialization is great for the larger corporations. The pros and cons of a specialist and a generalist are that its much harder to find a generalist with a very diverse set of skills required for a position as compared to a specialist for a particular product unless of course that product outdated or not used very heavily. The risk associated for a company is much easier to have a specialist as compared to a generalist.

scottdm
scottdm

I have found that my skills are that I am adaptable. Several of the companies/govts. that I have worked for, I started in a general area (ie. Help Desk/PC Tech) and was able to become a specialist on many levels. The key was working for up and comming companies and municipalities where a few IT people are expected to know everything. From those companies (and the skills I gained there), when it became time to move I was able to pick and choose jobs instead of starting at the bottom.

kelly
kelly

I liked the term generalist all the same. Amongst a group of IT specialists in the workplace, I can definitely be the eyes and ears of many of our clients on how they understand technology. So I have found my niche. For now.

jdmercha
jdmercha

Specialists seem to stay in their specialty. Generalist hpo around from one thing to the next. Spcialists are usually experts in one or two things, and are relied on to provide expertice in their areas. Generalists may also have expert level knowledge in one or two particular areas, but they are not often accepted as experts in that ares. Specialists are less likely to be promoted into managemnet positoins. unless your specialty is programming. For some reason programmers can manage technicians but technicians cannot manage programmers. Take a look at IT management job openings. You'll see things like "Must have J2EE development experience" along with "Knowledge of MS Office helpful".

Kiltie
Kiltie

you're into screwing Nick? Helps to have a good tool ;-) Say no more mf :) :) :) Edit: Emoticons not working

w2ktechman
w2ktechman

Technology changes pretty rapidly, so being a specialist alone, can make you be truly alone. Having some specialties while being a generalist is the best spot to be in (my opinion). That way you can follow the new cool stuff and use it, and be able to know what you are talking about in other areas other than your expertise.

CG IT
CG IT

as my other posters have said, specialists are more in line with large companies. I'm in small business field and one has to be a generalist.

C L Kerr
C L Kerr

Tigger.. I think you hit on a key success factor in IT _ Adaptability. IT is not a monolithic function - and must change with the business and with regulations... If I am going to be known as a specialist, I'd prefer to specialize in solving business problems than to specialist in Technology. However, enabling a solution usually requires technology knowledge at a certain proficiency. Too often though I see technology for technology's sake, like a hammer looking for a nail... Mercy

JamesRL
JamesRL

I spent far more time as a technician than as a programmer, but I suppose I could be an exception. In truth, the thing that brought me to management is project management experience. Even though my background had been "senior technical specialist" I was still given some projects which assumed a knowledge of the software development lifecycle, like implementing a version control system and implementing a document repository/project tracking system for software projects. James

mabingle
mabingle

I think we all have this wrong. Let's see, some say one or the other, and some say both. Let me give a senerio of a Data Warehouse pro. Now here's a specialist that knows data modeling, data sourcing, and expert in ETLing, has to be real good at programming and report generation. Needs to know hoe to populate a Website with his/her dashboards, must fully understand DBMS used as the platform, must fully understand the architecture, and must be read savvy about thee source sytems used to populate the DW and marts. Hmmm, he/she must also have those soft skills, be a team player, and nowadays be able to work with odffshore personnel. Oh yeah, he/she better be able to present and sell their stuff too. Wow, what a resume. So, I guess it's a mix. In this senerio I suppose the expertise can range from real good to walks on water. I guess we all have some of both in us. Best, Mike

jdmercha
jdmercha

Here is the key. You may not have done much programming, but you held a position on the programming side. A systems analyst might also fall into this category.

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