Let’s spend a minute discussing the future. More precisely, let’s talk about your future.

How does it look? When you look ahead five or 10 years, do you have a clear picture of where you want to be? Do you know precisely what kind of company you’d like to be working for, and what kinds of projects and technology you’d like to be working on?

Perhaps your vision of the future is fuzzier. You have a general sense of the things you like to work on and your preferred work environment, but you don’t have any strong vision or goals for further down the road.

Finally, maybe you’re like many of us who are focused on the moment, don’t have a clue what the future holds, and don’t spend much time thinking about it.

No matter which of these camps you fall into, as an IT manager, you know that technology doesn’t stand still. Therefore, your job five or 10 years from now will likely be very different from the job you have today. In this column, I’m going to discuss different ways of planning your career, by asking you to consider what kind of an IT professional you are today.

Of foxes and hedgehogs
When I ask what kind of IT professional you are, I’m not talking about your skill sets so much as your approach to your profession. (Forgive me, but I’m going to bring in a philosopher off the bench at this point. Don’t panic—he’ll only be here for a moment.) In 1953, the late philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay called, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” He took his title from an ancient fragment by the Greek poet Archilochus: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Now the essay was about the Russian writer Tolstoy, and Berlin used the term fox and hedgehog to distinguish between writers and philosophers who view all their work through the prism of a single unifying idea or belief (hedgehogs), and those whose writings, while distinguished, move from topic to topic without such a unifying principle (foxes).

As I said, Berlin was talking about writers, but I think his division can be useful to IT managers as well. Usually, IT managers sort themselves into two camps, based on whether they are primarily managers or technologists. (In fact, a column I wrote on that very topic generated some impassioned responses.) As the chart below shows, most of you spend a considerable part of your time working on technology issues.

So the relevant division between foxes and hedgehogs is in our approach to technology. Hedgehogs are specialists, whether of a particular vendor or an individual technology. Foxes, on the other hand, are technology generalists.

Is it better to be a fox or a hedgehog?
Which is better? I’m not sure the question means anything. Berlin’s insight was that writers tended to be either hedgehogs or foxes by natural disposition and not by choice. To continue the animal analogies, it’s not easy for a leopard to change its spots, nor is it easy for a hedgehog to become a fox, or vice versa. In other words, specialists and generalists are probably born, not made.

Certainly, there are advantages to each approach. If you can correctly pick an emerging technology and ride its implementation wave, specializing in a particular platform or on a particular vendor can be very rewarding.

One of the best examples of this strategy that I know of happened pre-Y2K. At that time, SAP implementation specialists could almost literally write their own ticket. If they were willing to travel and work onsite, qualified SAP consultants could bill from $100-$300 an hour, with no questions asked. Top performers could ask for (and receive) expensive perks: paid weekly trips back home, first class upgrades, and hotel packages, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that those men and women didn’t work hard, or that only getting to see your family on the weekends wasn’t a sacrifice. I’m simply pointing out that SAP specialists during the late 1990s were able to command a premium salary because their skills were in such high demand.

What happened next demonstrates the peril of being a technology hedgehog, and overspecializing. First, as the year 2000 approached, most of the big corporate customers froze major application upgrades, having spent big money making sure that their systems were Y2K compliant. Therefore, demand for big ERP implementations cooled, and companies like SAP, Bahn, and PeopleSoft saw their meteoric sales growth start to slow, and then decline. Second, and more important in the long run, the high salaries commanded by SAP consultants didn’t go unnoticed by their peers. More and more consultants trained on SAP software, increasing the supply of SAP talent at the very time that demand had started to weaken.

So, that is the upside and downside of being a technology hedgehog. What about those of us who are technology foxes—generalists? As you might expect, there are pros and cons here as well. On the upside, being a generalist can give you the opportunity to work on a greater variety of platforms and projects; and some organizations like the flexibility of a manager who’s got experience in several different environments, rather than sticking to one particular niche.

On the downside, most organizations, when hiring, are looking for men and women with a particular set of skills. Being a technology fox might not be helpful in that case. Further, when organizations are tightening their belts, they sometimes consider generalists a luxury they can’t afford, since they must keep managers who can maintain their existing technology.

So what should you do?
If there is no right answer to the technology fox vs. hedgehog debate, what should you do? First of all, try to determine which of those best describes your approach to IT management. Find out if you’re a fox or a hedgehog.

If you’re a technology hedgehog, your future employability rests on two factors: learning a particular discipline or software better than almost everyone around you, and also picking a specialty that companies desire. That being the case, I’d spend some time working on a backup specialty. This focus can either be something really cutting-edge (which could grow into your next bread-and-butter work), or something more mundane that has greater staying power. Also, keep your eyes open for changes in the market for your specialty.

If you’re a technology fox, you have to be nimble and able to cover a wider area of ground. Make sure that your general management skills are where they should be. Further, perhaps you might want to consider yourself an expert in integration issues. In other words, instead of focusing on any one product or platform, develop a deep understanding of the general issues surrounding any major application integration.

Are you a fox or a hedgehog?

What case can you make for being one type of IT manager over the other? Send us some mail or post a comment.