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Today’s Federal IT Generalists May Need a New Career Path

Level 11

As government agencies shift their focus to virtualization, automation and orchestration, cloud computing, and IT-as-a-Service, those who were once comfortable in their position as jacks-of-all-IT-trades are being forced to choose a new career paths to remain relevant.

Today, there’s very little room for “IT generalists.” A generalist is a manager who possesses limited knowledge across many domains. They may know how to tackle basic network and server issues, but may not understand how to design and deploy virtualization, cloud, or similar solutions that are becoming increasingly important for federal agencies.

But IT generalists can grow their careers and stay relevant. That hope lies in choosing between two different career paths: that of the “IT versatilist” or “IT specialist.”

The IT Versatilist

An IT versatilist is someone who is fluent in multiple IT domains. Versatilists have broadened their knowledgebase to include a deep understanding of several of today’s most buzzed-about technologies. Versatilist can provide their agencies with the expertise needed to architect and deliver a virtualized network, cloud-based services, and more.

Versatilists also have the opportunity to have to help their agencies move forward by mapping out a future course based on their familiarity surrounding the deployment of innovative and flexible solutions. This strategic support enhances their value in the eyes of senior managers.

The IT Specialist

Like versatilists, IT specialists have become increasingly valuable to agencies looking for expertise in cutting edge technologies. However, specialists focus on a single IT discipline, such as a specific application. For example, a specialist might have a very deep grasp of security or storage, but not necessarily expertise in other adjacent areas.

Still, specialists have become highly sought-after in their own right. A person who’s fluent in an extremely important area, like network security, will find themselves in-demand by agencies starved for security experts. This type of focus can nicely complement the well-rounded aspect that versatilists bring to the table.

Where does that leave the IT generalist?

Put simply – on the endangered list.

The government is making a major push toward greater network automation. Yes, this helps takes some items off the plates of IT administrators – but it also minimizes the government’s reliance on human interference. Those who have traditionally been “keeping the lights on” might be considered replaceable commodities in this type of environment.

If you’re an IT generalist, you’ll want to expand your horizons to ensure that you have a deep knowledge and expertise of IT constructs in at least one relevant area. Relevant disciplines will most likely center on things like containers, virtualization, data analytics, OpenStack, and other new technologies.

Training on these solutions will become essential, and you may need to train yourself. Attend seminars or webinars, scour educational books and online resources, and lean on vendors to provide additional insight and background into particular products and services.

Whatever the means, generalists must become familiar with the technologies and methodologies that are driving federal IT forward. If they don’t, they risk getting left out of future plans.

Find the full article on our partner DLT’s blog, TechnicallySpeaking.

20 Comments
Level 11

So as I see it the Generalist was Jack of all Trades, Master of None (Backbone of Federal IT).  I don't see that disappearing in the Federal realm, I believe they must adapt to the current Federal push and become Jack of all Trades and Master of Some.  Call me old school, but I never see every position filled in Federal IT, so they will continue to need versatile engineers who can spin up quickly on the subject at hand.   A versatilist it is. Really good article.

MVP
MVP

I tend to agree with tcbene​ on this. 

I would think this probably applies to every part of IT, not even specifically federal IT - you need to have some generalist skills and you need something you are really good with. Otherwise lots of things will tend to have issues - how can you develop/architect a solution to something if you don't know about the things that interact with it? Etc.

Level 10

Everything is being moved to Managed Services/Cloud services.  Generalists will still be needed especially in the federal sector.

Level 14

I have to agree with tcbene​ on this.  The only thing I have to add is the difference between a Generalist and a Versatiist.  A Generalist has a skill set that has kept them afloat for a while.  They may not really enjoy what we do and so they have no interest in learning any more.  They are satisfied with where they are.  A versatillist has the same general skills, but they are still hungry. still thirsty for new knowledge.  They enjoy learning new things.  They play with tech at home.  (Thank you to Thwack for the Raspberry Pi by the way) They spend long hours in the tech section at Barnes and Nobles.

Stay thirsty my friends.

Level 11

I think you could say the Versatilist is just the 2.0 version of the Generalist, with an upgrade and enhanced development in key areas either chosen by the Versatilist or driven by environment they are working in.

Level 11

I'm not sure I would classify the person you are describing as a Generalist, sounds more like a laziest.  Defined as one going through the motions of coming to work, but not really working, collecting a paycheck waiting for the end of the day or the day they can retire.  One who's thirst has been quenched.  network defender​ I totally agree, Stay thirsty my friends.

MVP
MVP

Hey now, don't disparage those of us looking to retire I look forward to it almost every day.

Level 11

Of course not.  Who doesn't look forward to retiring someday.  Looking forward to retiring and being retired at work are not the same.

mesverrum​ - what's stopping you? We can all retire anytime we want!

MVP
MVP

You are preaching to the choir on that one.  In the past I used to take about 6 months off every other for me to take long wandering vacations but I found it was limiting my career, haha.  I'm figuring as soon as my kid graduates high school I won't be bothered to show up to work anymore.  I have it on a spreadsheet so you know its for real

I concur with most of the above contributors' positions on Generalist vs. Versitilist.

My personal observation and experience has been that employers love specialists on their staff, but rarely budget for them--or for enough of them.  It simply requires too many expensive bodies that know the deep details, and employers end up with Generalists to be able to react to all the various demands on IT.

We can call them Versitilists, or any other name, but Management (in my experience) wants fewer expensive Specialists, and the lowest number of Generalists that they can have and still stay alive.

Management then relies on support contracts from vendors like Cisco, local VAR's, and specialty third-party experts.

In that environment it can feel like a Versitilist still is a Generalist:  Both still have all the pressure, all the demand, have to do all the same planning, and do all the maintenance and upgrades and repairs, that are done by that "more specialized Generalist" referred to as a Versitilist.

Call it what you want, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it's still a duck.  A Versitilist does what a Generalist must, albeit perhaps with more interest and more training.

I see more and more demand for growing numbers of skill sets, and making do with decreasing budget for training and travel.  Imagine having to know all the details for each of the twenty-nine modules in Orion--that you must be a virtual specialist in each of them, while supporting hundreds of network rooms and data centers across multiple states.  There's no budget for the right number of specialists.  Not even enough funds for enough Versitilists or Generalists.  So we spend money on third-party support contracts, and hope we have the best policies and practices in place.  And we go through employees and we pay for contracted vendors to train and hire experts and pay for their benefits, instead of hiring them ourselves.

Call me a Versitilist or a Generalist; I also have specialized knowledge in many areas.  But it appears one person can't generalize or even versitilize on all the needed areas of IT.  Generalists are becoming more and more specialized--and burned out--by demand, by lack of funding, and by there being too few competent / eligible applicants to help them get the job done.

The pendulum always swings... the Generalist, or JOAT, is on the way out... and then years later is in high demand. Much like all the other familiar trends in IT. (Who else remembers the centralization/de-centralization trends over the years?)

The common theme always wins out. Keep your skills current and progress with your career. Always make room for the "new guy" to slide in under you and you'll be safe. If you sit still and allow yourself to stagnate you'll get kicked to the curb. IT is all about constant learning.

Level 20

My advice if you are Federal... get your CISSP cert.  They love it!  I've been working on some government networks that require minimum of security + but they much more highly prize the CISSP cert.  I just got my recert after first 3 years.  It is a lot of work even after you get it but it pays off dividends.

Level 12

I completely agree with everything you say here. When you see a company that is posting an entry level job that is 3 pages long and requires 3-5 years of experience, that should tell you there is something not right in the industry itself. Entry level means 0 experience, and it should not be more then a page in length.

As for the specialists, company's want them badly and need them, but they do not want to pay for them or train them. It's like they expect to find the unicorn in the wild and bait it into their van with a carrot, good luck with that. I have been on job interviews with various companies for various jobs and when they say "You are lacking in the experience we are looking for" I look at them and tell them I am willing to do what ever training they see fit to send me to and give to me in order to make me into the person they want. They always buck on that and say we can't afford that kind of training. So basically they want someone else to pay to train the person they are looking for and needing, but then they complain when their prized specialists leave for greener pastures. Its Karma IMO.

It's definitely the experience I've had, too. I think that's sad.  Maybe pathetic.  Perhaps even deplorable.

At a previous employment location (a public school district), they couldn't pay the going rate for IT staff, but they compensated by providing excellent training and more PTO.  They flew me anywhere  that offer the right training--Boston, Chicago, Santa Clara, Fort Worth, Atlanta--no problem.

Because of that I stuck with them for years.  Eventually their training & pay policies worked against them, and the employees learned they could make a lot more with their new skills if they jumped ship; many did.

My current employer has had varying training policies that have met with failure or success.  For a while it was any training, anywhere, was OK.  Then it was only local training, and no paying for outside experts to come in.  If the local vendors couldn't offer it, too bad.  Then it became OK to travel up to 150 miles, but no further.  Currently they bought an "unlimited" training package for each of us (@$2100/each) from Stormwinds for online training.  It's not up-to-date training on the latest & greatest things we need (ISE 2.0, ACI, FirePOWER, etc.), so I find limited use in it.  It would be great for a new guy just starting out in the basics, though.

Training used to cost around $2K for a week, including travel (back in the '90's).  Now it's more like $6K or more for 5 days, including air travel, car rental, lodging, & food.

But you can't hire a new employee for that, nor can you hire an outside gun to come in for that same money and be your long-term solution for that technology.

Management always has tough decisions, but (to me) this one seems easy:  budget so all your staff will have at least two weeks of training every year--and set that budget high, to include off-site travel, hotel, and food and car.  Then include more budget for every new technology you're going to adopt and employ--and get that training for every employee who will be doing the support.  It's OK to spend less money overall and do a "train-the-trainer" session.  Just make sure the employee who is trained does a full knowledge share with everyone who is expected to support the new technology.

There are those who argue off-site / in-person training is obsolete or unnecessary.  I find it to be the opposite: I get so much more learning out of being away from the constant e-mails, phone calls, and cube-drive-by's at the office.  Plus, being away from the home office is refreshing--a good attitude-fixing experience.  I pick up so much more from the instructors and students before class, during lunch, and after class when we go out for supper together.  In my opinion, it far outweighs the supposed "benefits" of taking online training from your office.  At present, the only benefit I see for the online training is lower travel costs.  Accompanied by a much lower amount of learning, fewer important contacts being made, and less mental rejuvenation.

Level 14

In my own opinion, I do not think that generalists are going anywhere anytime soon, in the federal or civilian realms.  They are still needed.  General Help Desks and entry-level technicians are made up of mostly generalists.  They usually aren't strong in specific areas.  They may even bounce around different areas to progress in their career.  Some would even not become real strong in that area before moving to another opportunity.  ESPECIALLY in the world of government contracting.  Eventually they would become a Versatilist or a Specialist.  They even may become a Specialist in multiple areas while also maintaining a Versatilist status.  No matter how many versatilists and specialists there are, there will always be room for the generalists.  Everyone has to start some where!  I do not believe the generalist needs a new career path, as they are on a career path to find the right lane for them.  Now if they are complacent in not learning new things and don't want to find their lane, then they just need "A" career path period.

Progression always pays off...

Level 20

Also, from my experience, the lanes change sometimes or split down more than road.

Level 21

I'm not sure I would classify the person you are describing as a Generalist, sounds more like a laziest.

I about died laughing when I read this, thanks for that tcbene​!

Level 9

Generalists will always be around.