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Awaken Your IT Force: Generalists Must Secure a Specialty or Venture into Versatility

Level 13

The need for disruptive innovation is driving businesses to seek better, faster, and cheaper options to internal IT. This coercive effort to find the best-fit technology is putting the squeeze on IT departments, IT budgets, and IT pros. Furthermore, new technologies are disrupting older, monolithic technologies and IT processes at a higher frequency and a grander scale. Alternatives are coming in with more velocity, more critical mass, or both. This abundance of choice is putting IT pros in a scramble-to-come-up-to-speed-on-the-changing-tech-landscape-or-find-yourself-out-of-the-IT-profession mode.

IT generalists may find themselves on the endangered list. A generalist is an IT pro with limited knowledge across many domains. Think broad, but not deep in any IT area. Generalists are being treated as replaceable commodities with reduction in force either through automation and orchestration or through future tech constructs like AI or machine learning.

But all is not lost, there are two paths that IT pros can seek to differentiate themselves from fellow generalist clones: IT versatilist or IT specialist.

IT versatilists are embracing the challenges by leveraging their inner IT force—born of experience and expertise to meet the speed of business. IT specialists are emerging out of the data center shadows to show off the mastery of their one skill in the era of big data and security ops.

A versatilist is fluent in multiple IT domains. This level of expertise across many technology disciplines bridges the utility between IT ops and business ops. They are sought after to define the processes and policies that enable automation and orchestration at speed and scale.

A specialist is a master of one specific IT discipline. It can be an application like databases or a domain like security, storage, or networking. Businesses are looking to them to transform big data into profit-turning, tunable insights and actions. Businesses are also looking to them to protect their data from all the connected entities in the Internet of things.

So which IT pro are you? The revolution has already started—hybrid cloud, software-defined data center, big data, containers, microservices, and more. Have you made preparations to evolve into a specialist or a versatilist? Awaken your inner IT force, there’s plenty of opportunities to expand your IT career. Paid well, you will be.

40 Comments
jkump
Level 15

Interesting thoughts.  I would be in the IT Versalist category.  I am continually adding to my skill set but do not spend my entire day or life working in just one field. 

rharland2012
Level 15

Definitely more of a versatilist - or a supergeneralist. Another place that versatilists can flourish is in project management - specifically, IT-centric projects of moderate to high complexity where comprehension of the assorted technical pieces needed to get these things across the finish line and how those pieces need to intersect is a tangible value-add.

clubjuggle
Level 13

After years in a NOC maintaining our Solarwinds platform, monitoring circuit, placing and managing circuit orders, 1st-tier troubleshooting routers, managing web filters, etc., I am now in a position where I am working at a different company who is implementing Solarwinds for the first time, and getting migrated to the new platform is my only job. Going from many competing priorities to just one is actually more of an adjustment than you would think.

terryedwards519
Level 10

When working in smaller companies you start out as an IT-Generalist but then your goal should be to move towards an IT-Veralist. It's not until moving into a larger company (or consulting company) that you really need to transition to IT-Specialist but I firmly believe that you need to have that IT-Veralist "skill-set" to really become an asset. You need to be able to see the big picture of how all the technologies will fit together.

cahunt
Level 17

Raised to be versatile, and not just tied to IT.

_stump
Level 12

I'll just leave this here: Rise of the Hybrid Engineer.

nglynn
Level 11

I'm not understanding the difference between a Generalist and Versatilist I guess.  To me there are two classifications that one can fit in.  Your either broad, but shallow or your narrow and deep.  I've heard there are unicorns out there that are broad and deep....

rharland2012
Level 15

The way I think of it is this - a generalist knows how to turn wrenches of various shapes and sizes to resolve various break-fix situations. A versatilist knows to some degree *why* those wrenches are turned, and why wrench-turn for problem A can impact the next wrench-turn for application B, and why one needs to check with application owners of seemingly unrelated platforms before turning the wrench for the dreaded (and running on Server 2003, wouldn't you know) app X.

Probably not the most elegant or informative analogy, but it's all about having contextual understanding of a larger IT ecosystem, I think.

kong.yang
Level 13

_stump‌‌ - thank you for sharing! Awesome post!

kong.yang
Level 13

A generalist will know enough about the network, servers, storage, and network to reboot/power on/power off systems, rack & stack, and keep the proverbial lights on; but is never involved in design decisions, procurement, proof-of-concepts, architecting, and other in-depth work in their data centers. A versatilist will be strong in two or more of those domains and potentially other domains as well such as operating systems, hypervisors like vSphere, Hyper-V, or KVM, cloud computing, and other IT constructs.

nglynn
Level 11

I guess our definitions of IT Pros are a bit different.  Your generalist description falls more into the Help Desk/NOC category in my books.  Maybe that's the disconnect?  I'm thinking of IT Professionals as Administrator/Engineer levels.  Where a generalist certainly knows much, much more than has been eluded to above.  I would also still claim that your Generalist and Versatilist are one & the same.  For example  Enterprise Architects I would largely consider generalists.  They may not know Exchange or SQL like the Exchange Engineers or SQL DBA however, they certainly know enough to architect and design infrastructures around those applications albeit at high levels.  They can design the networks, storage resources etc.  On the flip side, the SQL DBA may understand at a high level the infrastructure and design, but can dive very deep down the applicable application stack & of course leverages the DBA black magic.  In the end I think you still have Generalist and Specialist.  I'm not sure I see the existence of this Versatilist the way its been presented.

tcbene
Level 11

I agree, I see the generalist and versatilist descriptions remarkably similar.  They both sound like the jack of all trades master of none.   Most IT people I know fall into the category of specializing in several areas and mastering none.  When the the boss needs a task completed there is no such thing as that's not in my job description, you just get the job done.

rharland2012
Level 15

By that logic, help desk/NOC Tier 1 people and enterprise architects are basically interchangeable. I don't think that's accurate.

rharland2012
Level 15

You've hit on a good point there and one that might have gotten lost in the shade of these distinctions. Perhaps one could say that the differentiation between generalist and versatilist is one of tasking and task accomplishment to a more navigational/architectural/design job description or deliverable. In other words, a generalist can perform many tasks handed to them across disciplines to a certain level of complexity, and a versatilist (having done many of those tasks over the years) has developed a keener sense of the connectedness of tasks - as they relate to projects/initiatives/designs for networks, applications, or platforms.

jkump
Level 15

So the possibility exists that the true distinction comes from the level and amount of experience across a broader discipline.

kong.yang
Level 13

nglynn‌‌ thanks for sharing your view.

The main point is deep knowledge & expertise of IT constructs is required to thrive and advance in this IT-as-a-Service/continuous delivery+integration world. Look at the skills that businesses are willing to pay a premium for -  2015 IT Skills That Will Pay Them Bills‌‌.

     

rharland2012
Level 15

Absolutely - I really think it's down more to one's mindset than anything else. For example, there are those generalists as described above - they've been handed a bunch of different types of tasks, can do them all with competence, and enjoy the differentiation in their day-to-day work - while not having an interest in moving toward design/architecture/vision opportunities. These persons' technical abilities are RIGHT THERE with someone who might explore and take on a more autonomous architect or PM opportunity - it's just a personal preference for career/job fulfillment that varies from person to person.

Just my 2c, though - perhaps I'm just a generalist with delusions of versatility...

spkcadet
Level 9

Good share, and arguments to be made in many aspects.  The specialized engineers will never go away because your big companies need someone who is an expert.  On the flip side your smaller companies that cannot afford an elaborate staff of experts will need the "Jacks" that know a wide array of skill sets and can transition between duties.  Additionally your specialists will typically move into your architect roles, while your "Jacks" will become management since they typically see all fields and can help the specialists communicate across responsibilities.

my 2 cents.

jkump
Level 15

Effective rationalization of the roles!  Kudos!

mr.e
Level 14

I always thought of myself as a specialist of sorts, since I handle all monitoring tools for my firm.  However, I'm getting closer to be a SolarWinds IT as were sort of migrating our tools more towards SolarWinds. 

I am just waiting to hear those ominous words... "Mr.E, I am your father..."  download.jpg

mr.e
Level 14

Here's another one that knocked my socks off....

i-am-your-father-cassette-tape-ipod-vinyl.jpg

jkump
Level 15

Yes, I agree that was a nice addition to this post.  Thanks!

cahunt
Level 17

not-the-father.jpg

theuns.jonck
Level 8

terryedwards519‌ put it quite well.

I moved to the IT dept 17 years ago  - cause I liked computers and had a good business understanding of our gaming application.

After 5 years of becoming an IT senior engineer, I moved into a senior position and 3 years later specialised as a Gaming Specialist.

Due to my love for technology I grew into a  versatilist and embraced the management tools on offer.

I believe there is room for each of the roles in orginisations, but as kong.yang‌ states "The revolution has already started—hybrid cloud, software-defined data center, big data, containers, microservices, and more. Have you made preparations to evolve into a specialist or a versatilist? Awaken your inner IT force, there’s plenty of opportunities to expand your IT career."

optwpierce
Level 10

I think you need both in your environment in order to be successful.  You need a versatilist in a management position for direction and purposefulness of your projects and agenda.  However, you also need specialist to review the plan and ensure that it 1). can be done and 2). that there is not a better way to perform the same function.  Then the specialist will perform the work required to ensure it is done properly and be able to find and fix any issues during the initial process.

jkump
Level 15

Excellent point!

mr.e
Level 14

images (5).jpg

muwale
Level 12

nice

mr.e
Level 14

Mexican-Darth-Vader.png

txyang
Level 9

Versatilist, by necessity. Mile wide, inch deep...that's the way I'm feeling.

samwebb
Level 9

Insightful

esther
Level 12

Please tell who my real FATHER is.

rschroeder
Level 21

In my business the IT Department (~400 people) had been very rigidly siloed by Management.  My team is working to break down those barriers and get insight into other technologies while sharing insight into the Network with other Technologists.

The tool we're trying to use as our lever is the Orion suite of products.  Today we have NPM and NCM and NTA and Kiwi; the things we can show DBA's and SysAdmins and Apps Analysts would really open their eyes once we all start sharing expertise.  The horizontal info share is the only way I see to change Management's methods, and SolarWinds is going to be our partner in change.

And that's also the path from specialist to versatilist.

prowessa
Level 12

i agree so much information given here. It is a very import thing to get insight into what is going on in the different technologies.

It pros should really enlarge their horizon and see the bigger picture.

pseudocyber
Level 12

In my experience, and my personal career - it seems that people start out as generalists and specialize over time as they acquire specific interest, training, aptitude, and career growth.  "Generally" speaking ... generalists are paid less than specialists because of their less developed expert knowledge.

I would love to learn more about programming, databases, virtualization,  devops, web design, graphic arts and CAD ... etc. etc.  But there is just TOO much to learn, and not enough time to specialize in everything.  I think we all pick up bits of this and that in IT - I've worked on windows servers (NT 4.0 MCSE), I've worked on PC's (A+), I've worked on printers, I've swapped hard drives in RAID arrays, I can fumble around in Linux, have written some very basic Access relational databases ... but I'm a network engineer and that's where my specialization and expertise is - routing and switching - and that is what I'm paid to be the company's on site expert at.

Of course we all have to be versatile if we want to stay employed.  If my boss comes and says he wants me to learn VMware (going to Vsphere 6.0 class next week), it's up to him to provide me the time and tools to do it.  It's up to me to say OK, if I want to keep my job - or else he'll find someone else to do it.  I am versatile - I am willing to learn new things, I know how to learn new things (class, vendor documentation, you tube, forums, Google "how do I ...").

I suppose my point is that being a generalist comes through experience.  Being an expert specialist comes through focusing on a technology and career development.  Being a versatile is a requirement for being in IT.

jeremymayfield
Level 15

Well said

jeremymayfield
Level 15

Mr. E, I am your father....   and wait no more...  

network_defender
Level 14

I would have to say I belong to both camps, versatalist and specialist.  My career has been continuously moving from one stepping stone to another.  I actually started with main frames, moved to HPUX sysadmin on thicknet, PC repair on 10BaseT, Windows NT Sysadmin, Novell sysadmin, Windows 2000 sysadmin, Cisco and Juniper network admin, firewall and IDS admin, and Cyber security to include Incident handling, intrusion analysis, traffic analysis in a massive virtual environment..

As I have progressed down this path, I have drawn on previous experience and built on previous knowledge.  I work cyber, but I am still part of the network shop adding clients to switches, modifying routing, updating ACL's and firewall rules.

One can be both the versatalist and specialist.

abynum
Level 10

I too have ranged all over in the course of my career and even before as a novelist.  Now I tend to be more administration as I've elevated and taken on job responsibilities.  I have had to be come more of a cybersecurity specialist, but haven't we all.  My heart still lies in networking.  If I were a specialist, that is where I'd be.  However, I must be a versatilist in order to do my job effectively.  I do however have to understand multiple areas in a deep capacity.  Some of us older school fellas know what that is like and understand it, maybe more than I think.

IT will always be comprised of very intelligent people who think differently.  We have to.  If we thought like the rest of the world, everything would fall offline and no one would be there to answer the help desk phones to tell people to plug the cable back in they just unplugged to charge their phone.

jamesola_cheat_
Level 8

Being versatile goes beyond just being tied to a profession...versatility is more of interest, passion and willingness to expand your scope/horizon beyond what they said/taught to what you discover. It brings fort discovery, development.

IT-Versatile...IT-Pro...IT-Specialist (#ProudToBeAGeek)

About the Author
Mo Bacon Mo Shakin' Mo Money Makin'! vHead Geek. Inventor. So Say SMEs. vExpert. Cisco Champion. Child please. The separation is in the preparation.