Generalist versus specialist IT professionals

Recently, I have been involved in several discussions with IT pros who were seeking employment and a common theme appeared to come up in most of the discussions.

Everyone wanted to know if there was any future in becoming an IT generalist, rather than specializing in a single track. In some cases this came about because they were having a difficult time finding a position in their particular specialization. In others, their old specialization was no longer in demand, and usually, this was because the product the specialization was based on either no longer existed, or had been supplanted by a better product that did the same thing – only better!

In either case, this pointed out to me the danger of becoming too highly specialized. We all know that no matter what you choose as an Area Of Competency (AOC), you are going to have to learn the fundamentals initially and then learn all the details that make one a specialist in any given track.

Of course, it does not end there. Anyone who has been in the IT profession for longer than a year or so, has already discovered the one thing that everyone in IT either loves with a passion, or hates with equal fervor:

“To be good at whatever you do in the IT profession, you can NEVER stop learning!”

So, we all realize that no matter what your AOC is, there is always the possibility that it will become outmoded, or change so much that your initial training is useless. The question now is – ‘Does that also apply to being a generalist?’ Of course it does, only more so!!

As an independent consultant for a large portion of my 30+ years as an IT professional, my experience has shown me three things:

  1. For any given engagement, a client will usually look for a specialist in whatever technology they are currently dealing with.
  2. Those individuals that specialize too heavily in a particular technology to the exclusion of others, almost invariably cripple themselves technically because no matter what the AOC, it is invariably dependent on some other technology to operate efficiently.
  3. Every project needs at least one individual with a generalists’ training and outlook. Maybe not as the prime mover, but at least very close to whomever is in that position.

Generalists are often looked down on by the specialists because they do not have the depth of knowledge in any one specialty that most specialists do. However, what most specialists fail to realize is that being a successful generalist is far more difficult than specializing!

You see, while the specialist has to learn their individual specialty in depth, a generalist has to cover a much broader spectrum of knowledge. True, they do not cover that broad spectrum to the depth that a specialist does in any given area, but they have to know enough about a very wide spectrum of subjects to know HOW and WHY they interact the way they do, and WHAT can be done to make different applications work efficiently together in a given environment.

As a quick example, a couple of years ago, I was brought into a situation at a mid-sized company whose IT infrastructure was having problems on an increasingly frequent basis. The problem as described to me was that the primary file server, an SBS machine, had to be rebooted every evening – otherwise the clients’ email would lock up part way through the following day!

Because email was a critical element in that clients’ business, they had brought in an Exchange expert to look into the situation. After reviewing the clients’ system, his recommendation was to install a second Exchange server and cluster the machines so that if one machine failed, the other would continue operation seamlessly. This solution was estimated to cost the client about $20,000.00.

I was brought in as a second opinion. When I reviewed the situation, I found that Exchange was not at fault at all! It was crashing because the Active Directory structure that Exchange depends on for proper operation was itself completely unstable. The domain controllers were not syncing correctly which caused problems for Exchange. But even this was not the root cause of the problem. The DCs could not sync properly because as the system had grown over the years, the client had simply added more switches and ‘daisy-chained’ them together. As both workstations and servers were spread over several switches at each of two locations, creating massive ‘choke points’, there was no way that Active Directory would EVER be able to sync correctly.

That is a classic case of a specialist who either could or would not look beyond his specialization. Spending the $20K on the solution that the specialist recommended would not have solved the problem – only compounded it. It took a generalist who had knowledge of Exchange; Active Directory; AND routing & switching to use a mixture of all of those skills to resolve the problem.

So being a generalist means that one has to understand the basics of a lot of separate AOC’s and know how they integrate and what they need to work together efficiently. The generalist will often not know the specific commands or techniques used in implementing specific features in a product, but he DOES know that the feature exists and in general, what it requires to function efficiently. Knowing that a specific function exists, he/she can always look up the specific command or implementation process.

The generalists’ big advantage over most specialists is that they have an understanding of the fundamental requirements and interactions of most of the AOCs involved, not just a single one, and thus can often resolve problems that specialists are not equipped by their training to do.

Although most IT professionals do not realize it, the need for IT generalists is much greater than most people are aware of, and the few well-trained ones that are available are rarely out of work. Unfortunately, being a generalist is much more difficult than specializing because one cannot focus on a single given area exclusively, but instead must continually ‘keep up’ on the broad spectrum of technologies that make up the IT profession.

Being a generalist is an AOC that will NEVER die, but it IS a difficult one to master!

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