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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William Turgeon
William has been in the computer industry since 1970, first working on industrial process controllers as a Certified Electronics Technologist. He worked with early 'personal computers' (pre-IBM) like the Osborne; TRS-80's and Kaypro's, and trained in networking with WANG PC’s in the early 1980’s, and Novell in 1985. Since then, William has been involved in the IT industry as a Professional Consultant, Senior Systems Engineer and Technical Architect. He holds a BSc. in Computer Engineering and also holds a large number of trade certifications including: Microsoft - MCP; MCP+I; MCSE; MCSE+I; MCDST; MCDBA; MCTS & MCITP Novell - CNA; CNE; ECNE & MCNE CompTIA - A+; Network+; iNet+; Server+; Project+ & Security+. He is ITIL certified and is also a SFIA Accredited Consultant. Finally, he holds the Registered Professional designations, I.S.P. and ITCP, issued by the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS). He currently contracts as ComputerWise Consulting Inc.

18 COMMENTS

    • Actually Chris, You seem to have missed the point, which is that we need MORE generalists, not less. Specializing is necessary of course, but is much more of a ‘dead end’ than being a generalist. After all, specializations tend to become more ‘siloed’ as one goes deeper in their specialty, and as technology changes, there is always the potential for the specialization to become outmoded. For example, I once specialized in Novell NetWare operating systems and at the time, Novell held over 65% of the networking market with the remainder of the market spread out among over 27 other competing products (Microsoft held less than 5% of that market). That specialization was GREAT while it lasted, but look where it is now – NetWare has gone the way of the Dodo bird and Microsoft is arguably ‘king of the hill’ in terms of Network OS’s.
      Being a generalist is much more difficult than specializing as one has to keep ‘on top’ of numerous technologies, and it does require a lot more learning and updating. However, please keep in mind that I am referring to ‘specializations’ that involve a single product or product group. Specializing in a broad IT area, such as Security, is not what this article was intended to address.

  1. You nailed it William. Well said. As an IT manager, you have to be a generalist. BTW, it seems to me that becoming an IT Manager is a natural career progression for a generalist.

  2. Well said… I’ve been a practicing generalist for most of my career, started out being a SME in one area of technology, when the winds shifted, so did I, after a few of those passed, I realized and worried I was becoming the “jack of all trades, master of none”.. but in the end that turned out to be OK as my areas of knowledge expanded well beyond anything I would’ve thought it would be interested to me in the beginning of my career… if you’re a generalist, and you do it well, there’ll always be room in the IT ranks for you..

    • Very well put. Your “jack of all trades” analogy is quite appropro, but there is another regarding specialization that I think also has merit. It goes like this:
      “I have learned more and more about less and less until I now know everything there is to know about nothing at all!”
      Specializing solely in a narrow and ‘siloed’ area fits this adage perfectly. One narrows ones’ knowledge to a single specialization and learns everything there is to know about it, then the technology changes and the subject matter has no value.

  3. I think there is room for much discussion on this topic.
    I do not believe this is black and white – specialist vs. generalist – as seems to be portrayed. What your example describes to me is a multi-specialist more than a real generalist. Specialties can also evolve over time – someone who was a Netware specialist can perhaps more easily absorb the next great networking technology. What might be harder is to move from being a hardware guru to a business software development generalist.
    It may also be harder to move from working in an enterprise user environment to a vendor product developer role.
    I believe many people graduate towards the generalist role as they get older without necessarily explicitly planning to. But you are right that people looking for consultants do also want a specific skill set that isn’t always available with a generalist.
    I do not believe you can graduate fro school as a true IT generalist – it takes a specific goal of getting work in various areas to move in that direction.
    All in all, a very interesting post that might be worth expanding upon as an ITWC article instead of just a blog.

    • Hi Don. Actually, this blog was not intended to imply that the specialist vs. generalist debate is a black and white comparison. What I was trying to get across is that a lot of the IT people I meet seem to think that if you are not a specialist in something very specific, you have very little future in IT.
      Over and over again, I have seen instances of ‘specialists’ in a relatively narrow, but complex specialty, who have gone to extreme depths of training and experience in their chosen specialty, cause problems for a total system because they did not understand the ramifications that aspects of their ‘solution’ had on other parts of the system. These people have FAR more of an understanding of that specific specialty that I have, but little understanding of the impact it can have on the system as a whole.
      In some cases, they do not even have an understanding that their given solution will not work because of a particular quirk in the underlying platform.
      A good example of this is the initial example I used in the blog wherein an Exchange ‘specialist’ recommended clustering the Exchange servers at a cost of $20K as the solution to the clients’ problems, when clustering is not supported, and will not work in an SBS (Small Business Server) environment!
      Had that project actually been attempted, it would not have worked in the first place, and would have left the client in the same situation they initially started with, and possibly even a worse situation, depending on what the ‘specialist’ changed in order to try and get his solution working. Incidentally, that particular Exchange specialist had an excellent reputation with Exchange in an Enterprise environment!
      In actual fact, most IT practitioners DO graduate from school as a generalist, simply because very few college and university courses actually instruct on a narrow specialization, but instead try to cover the complete gamut of the IT profession, relying on the individual to choose a specialization after they are in the workforce.
      When I completed my BSc. in computer engineering, there were no courses offered to me that taught narrow specializations (like Exchange; PowerPoint; SQL; Etc.) in any real depth. There were courses that related to database theory and construction, but they covered the subject from the aspect of database types and fundamentals while instructing us in the rudiments of several technologies and/or products.
      Some colleges and universities DO teach courses that are intended to produce ‘specialists’ in a broad subject matter area, such as Security for example, but even they do not produce the highly ‘siloed’ individual that seems to be in such demand currently.
      Because of my high degree of experience with OS’s in general, I usually describe myself as a ‘Core Systems’ specialist, indicating that I am experienced in a broad range of OS’s and Directory Technologies that form the foundation for any network, from the simplest to the most complex. But, no matter how you look at it, that is a very broad area of ‘specialization’.
      I hold several Microsoft certifications in SQL, for example, but do not sell myself as a SQL specialist. I took the SQL training to help me to understand what SQL requires from the system as a whole and its’ particular environment in order to operate efficiently without a negative impact on the system as a whole.
      I guess that my underlying point here is that too many people today, both IT professionals and the people who hire them, seem to think that any given project requires only a highly ‘siloed’ specialist and that a professional with a more ‘generalized’ level of knowledge is not required or valuable.

      • I don’t disagree with you at all.
        When I went to engineering school, Exchange did not exist. Neither did the PC 🙂
        However, there are also levels of detail in a “generalist” – your example would suggest a significant level of knowledge in a variety of topics – problem diagnosis comes from experience, even if you are a specialist you need a logical approach to solving problems.
        Some generalists have quite a bit of experience but could no longer do the sleuthing and problem chasing that you did. The inability to think through a problem isn’t just due to specialization.
        In some cases companies will try to hire someone who has 10 specialties but only needs 3 years experience…….or has deep training in a field that is only 3 years old !
        All in all, a good discussion and more than we usually get for these blogs.

  4. Great post, Bill!
    There is another aspect to this discussion as well, which you briefly mentioned. When you work in SMB, there is often little opportunity to specialize, as there is so much ground to cover. Depending on the business, there may be little to no budget for training, often not enough time available to take time away from work for training, and not enough value in doing product-specific training when the job has such a broad scope. Many one-person or small IT teams find themselves in this situation. This can be a real issue when these people wind up looking for a new opportunity, as most companies look for certifications to provide proof of skill set – experience is often not enough. I am a firm believer in the value of certification, but the demands of completing certifications on personal time can be overwhelming, especially for sysadmins who are often already expected to not only provide support during business hours, but also do necessary infrastructure work outside of regular business hours.
    This also creates a bit of a “glass wall” between SMB and Enterprise. The barrier can be difficult to cross, especially after the first few years in a typical IT career. SMB needs the generalists, as the IT teams are not large enough to support highly specialized IT staff. Enterprise needs the specialists, as the size and complexity of the infrastructure supports having an individual with deep knowledge in a particular area. If someone is starting their IT career, this is worth being aware of, as it may affect how they choose to proceed with their employment path.
    I agree that the broad knowledge of a generalist is valuable, although as a generalist I am somewhat biased :>) Hopefully Enterprise recognizes that value when seeking staff, as the generalist position is very useful to be able to communicate between different specialists, and to potentially spot issues in other areas that a specialist may not be aware of.

    • Hi Glen,
      As I mentioned to Mike below, being someone who deals heavily in the SMB space is quite arguably a specialty of its’ own.
      One thing I would like to point out however is in terms of training. I, of all people, understand the pressures that certification places on personal time. But in respect to that, the problem one runs headlong into is that if one has not done the requisite training required to complete the certification, then “You do not know WHAT IT IS that you do not know about a specific subject!”
      Experience alone is not sufficient as it only teaches you the aspects of a given product or technology that you have actually experienced and without the formal training, you have no exposure to all of the features and technical considerations that may affect much more that the specific product you are dealing with. Most of us have seen product implementations that have caused problems with another aspect of a given system or indeed, caused a complete system to fail because the individual doing the work had not taken some aspect of the new implementation into account in terms of the way it might affect other systemic requirements.
      I have completed numerous certifications, and I would be the last to state that I still know each of these products as well as I did when I took the training. BUT, having taken the training, I have been exposed to all of the nuances of each product or technology I have trained on. So, I may not remember the exact command or process required to implement a given feature, but knowing that that feature exists, I know what to take into consideration in system designs or troubleshooting, and/or what to look up to ensure that it is properly implemented.
      The IT profession is one of the most complex in the world today, and the one with the greatest amount and consistency of change, so it is also the one with the greatest demand for ongoing training and general knowledge gathering. Personally, that is one of the things I love about IT as a profession.

  5. While I haven’t seen the particular example in this blog, I have run into numerous situations over the years were the specialist mentality would go right down the rabbit hole and it took a generalist to track down the real problem. Unfortunately as another response pointed out, large enterprises don’t want generalists; they want specialists forgetting that at the end of the day it’s the system that is important, not a specific service. SMBs need generalists who know how to tap specialists as needed.

    • Very well put, Mike. I would also pose the argument that being an SMB is a specialty all its’ own! There are so many areas where the SMB environment has caveats, limitations and special features which have to be considered, that the learning curve for someone who deals in the SMB space is often much higher than those in the enterprise space.
      While the enterprise space is much larger and more complex, this is the area wherein one sees’ a greater reliance on true specialists, who are ‘siloed’ into a relatively narrow, but deep, specialization. These are also the individuals who are most at risk when the products they specialize in become outmoded, or replaced by another more advanced technology (or programming language, etc.).

      • I hadn’t considered SMB as a specialization for IT, but you’re correct, it is. While SMB IT environments aren’t as complex as enterprise environments, I definitely wouldn’t consider being an SMB specialist any less complex than enterprise IT from the standpoint of what you have to know and be able to do though. In fact, I think it’s more complex to be an SMB IT person because you have to learn a lot more about everything.

  6. William, This is a very well written article. I have found that in my 20+ years of experience, it is good and possible to be both a generalist and a specialist. As I take on new clients, I find that I must develop some level of specialization in the areas that they specify in. Here in Massachusetts for example, and I assume everywhere the insurance industry relies heavily on SCO Unix or Linux based systems. I generalize in the OS and specialize in the applications which often have a Windows version as well that is quite similar, but as we are all aware, linux or unix is far more secure. I also deal with attorneys, so here I switch up my roles, I generalize in the applications lots of Lawyer type stuff, bankrupticies, filingmotions with the commonwealth or the courts, etc. and Specialize there in the OS and Office type applications as well as design all of their computer and networking and specialize in their custom printing/scanning needs. Other areas that I have clients in are medical, retail, and education. Here again, I focus on their needs hardware and os-wise as well as networking design and support and learn their special “pet” applications and such as needed.

    • I quite understand and appreciate your comments. But in the context of this discussion, I would not consider you a specialist in the strictest sense of the word. Instead I would consider you as a generalist with specific additional AOC’s (Areas Of Competency), which places you in a somewhat rare category because you have to not only cross technical boundaries, but also incorporate a detailed knowledge of your clients’ particular verticals and business requirements. A challenging position indeed!

  7. I agree completely, there is room for both the specialists and the generalist. With both roles filling very needed elements of a well run IT shop. The generalists you seem to be describing are the Architect roles that are now coming into focus for many IT professionals. The example you gave William, I would describe as either a Solution Architect, if they had designed and help to implement the end-to-end email deliver service, or a Technology Architect if they were responsible for all the components of service delivery in this shop. There is a great perspective paper published by the FEAPO group http://feapo.org/ that describes the growing field of Enterprise Architecture.

    http://feapo.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Common-Perspectives-on-Enterprise-Architecture-v15.pdf

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