For those of you who are just starting out in the IT career field, or have had 5 years or less experience, it is important to know if you will specialize in a technology or focus more on the generalist path. If you can answer this question early on, and then put all your energy into that path, you can build a really solid and prosperous career in IT. The problem is that deciding whether or not to specialize is not an easy one to make. Technology changes faster than any career field, and what you decided to specialize in could be obsolete in a few years. On the flip side, if you decide to be more of a generalist, you could find that you do not know enough about any one specific technology, and that could hold you back. Finding the best path forward will likely depend on a few scenarios, which will help to cement your decision. There is a good argument for both being a specialist and a generalist. Let’s take a look at each option and which would be a better fit for your situation.
Become a Specialist
Specializing in a certain technology field can be very lucrative if you truly become a subject matter expert. When you put yourself in a situation where you are sought after by multiple teams or customers, you can be rest assured you have job security. To achieve this level of specialization it is imperative to fully immerse yourself in the technology – I’ll explain what I mean by that.
Consider virtualization as an example of a technology that can serve you well by becoming a specialist. To immerse yourself in the virtualization field, you have to read blogs, comment on blogs, build a home lab and constantly tinker, attend VMworld and any other virtualization related expos. As a specialist you become a thought leader in that field, and you write white papers or publish reference architectures. In doing this – and focusing your efforts specifically on virtualization – you can be considered an expert. You have a variety of career paths, from being a guest panelist, to working directly for a large vendor as a specialist.
The downside to being a specialist is the possibility of the technology being obsolete as technology changes. Specializing in something is also akin to putting all your eggs in one basket. If you don’t back the right technology, you could find yourself back at square one having to learn a new technology or a more proven technology. While being a specialist can create job security, it can also make you bored! Doing the same thing every day can get old, especially if you are planning to work for 30 years or more.
Become a Generalist
A generalist does not focus on one singular technology, they focus on several technologies, and how each interact with each other. You can be a networking guru, but if you do not know how it works inside virtualization, how effective can you be? Having a solid understanding of networking, storage, virtualization and OS specific technologies can be very good for your career. The important part of becoming a generalist is to not simply scratch the surface of each technology you use, but to go much deeper in understanding the ins and outs of it. Be efficient at subnetting and at the same time, know your storage networking protocols. Becoming a generalist will place you in a position to take on a supervisory role for a team or group of engineers. As a generalist you will know how to converse with the Linux team as well as the Windows team, and help to get the virtualization team on the same page with the physical network team.
Just like being a specialist, there are downside to being a generalist, as well. Throughout your career if you are only ever an IT generalist, and you aren’t very good in anyone discipline, it can hurt your longevity in the workplace. Companies and customers want an IT staff that is constantly learning and getting better day by day. If you only ever know the basics of each technology discipline, you will be phased out quickly. If you don’t know how different technologies interact and have a hard time juggling different tech terms, the generalist role is not for you.
Find a Happy Medium
In today’s tech space, it is best to find a happy medium between specialist and generalist. There are upsides and downsides to both routes. If you can find a way to specialize in a certain technology and still maintain a good working knowledge of other technologies, you can build a very exciting and growing career. A good way to approach this is to start your career off by focusing on mastering a specific technology and then finding complementary technologies that you can pick up, as well, to understand how they interact with each other. Continue to learn and grow, take a class on a technology that you have never heard about and gain some experience with it.
There’s no official term for someone in between the specialist and generalist. A hybrid engineer? IT grandmaster? Call it what you will, but the best path forward is to do a little bit of both and keep your skills fresh.