In IT, a specializing generalist is someone who has a broad range of IT skills and experiences and is not specializing in one particular area of expertise. In most job postings, employers are seeking qualified candidates in specific areas such as database administration, working with a particular ERP package, a particular development language, etc. What you’ll often times notice in the details of most of these postings is that companies also mention a variety of other technologies and skills that would make a candidate even more interesting to the prospective employer. So the message is becoming more obvious from employers and is increasingly more apparent to employees in the IT field. Long-term success for IT employees and for employers building IT teams depends on both parties ability to make specializing in being a competent generalist a strategic focus.
For the employee, the benefits of becoming a specializing generalist are many. Having a broader range of skills is valuable in terms of career growth not only in their current firm but if something should change in their employment status with their company, finding a new position in the market place is typically easier. Some individuals feel that specializing gives them job security in that no one else or few others could replace them when in fact over the long term it only limits their growth and their ability to move up or move around in the organization. What’s worse is when the technology they’re specializing in becomes yet another yesterday’s IT fad and they could easily be left behind. So instead of waiting for that to inevitably occur why not get out in front of it by looking for opportunities to broaden your skills? Specialists can also become a target as organizations realize they have a specialist that may be indirectly or otherwise holding them hostage with their expertise or employers may simply have the legitimate concern that if their specialist get’s hit by the proverbial bus… Over the past 20 years or so there are ample examples of specializing technologies that have come and gone. People who have experienced the happy accident of possessing a particular specialization that’s in high demand can oftentimes take advantage of those lucrative positions, but again over the long haul this is not the best strategy. It’s a bit like stock picking versus a good mutual fund. Becoming a specializing generalist is a more predictable approach for individuals wanting to enjoy a long lasting and fulfilling IT career.
For organizations one of the key benefits of having specializing generalists on staff are that they don’t suffer as much when personnel changes occur. And personnel changes always occur. As experienced people leave an organization and new people enter the organization, the progress of IT projects slows and as a result related business objectives will take longer to be met as new employees are located and brought up to speed. Having specializing generalists on staff means that current projects can move along at a more consistent pace. For example, if you have one DBA specialist supporting multiple projects there can be bottlenecks getting that person’s time. If you have specializing generalists that can not only do their particular job but can also assist in other roles, projects move faster and there is a broader range of knowledge gained not only for the current project and business domain but also for other projects and domains. This also smoothes capacity planning when people are absent from work or are being pulled in different directions as always happens in any organization. Being strategic about creating specializing generalists and linking it as an HR imperative is highly useful in attracting and retaining talent. With more specializing generalists on staff possessing a broader range of technology and business domain knowledge, the time it takes to deliver supporting technology for the next big business idea/strategic imperative shrinks while the quality and accuracy of what’s delivered grows. When organizations employing this strategy do need specialists with extremely deep knowledge in a particular area that they lack, they bring those people in from the outside as consultants to help with a particular solution while also doing a real time knowledge transfer, alongside one or more specializing generalists.
So over the long run both sides win with this strategy. Individuals enjoy a more interesting and potentially lucrative IT career as they become better-rounded. And companies with the strategic focus of creating specializing generalists make their organizations more competitive and efficient when it comes to IT services and product delivery. They also tend to attract and retain employees–the right employees–focusing on becoming specializing generalists. There are a number of firms in Kansas City that are already creating this focus. Once they begin on this journey like most great ideas, it seems like such an obvious approach. It’s not always easy, but if your organization’s goal is to create the best IT delivery and support service possible given your current resources, having this focus will help you achieve it.