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.