In my career, this topic seems to have become more and more of either a barrier or an accelerator for the IT professional, depending on the person, and the environment they work in. So what am I talking about exactly? I’m talking about the ever-growing distinction between being the “jack of all trades” or the “specialist” in the IT world; they both have their values and their shortcomings. I believe the choice between the two includes attributes that cannot be simply learned (personality and character play heavily into the decision), and the simple desire to be one or the other may not be as simple as you think.
There are some geeks out there that may not be professional IT folks, so let me give them an example of “jack of all trades” versus “specialist”. Think “World of Warcraft”… an example of a “specialist” character in that world might be a Rogue or a Warrior. Both are designed and used in very specific roles, to accomplish very specific tasks. A “jack of all trades” character would be more like a Priest or a Druid. These characters are more flexible, and capable of performing different types of tasks, depending on current needs and objectives. In the gaming world you can almost instantly re-spec your character to become a specialist in any number of “masteries”. Unfortunately the real world does not yet offer an option for an instant re-spec. So you need to start early, and really consider all of the pros and cons, or run the risk of finding yourself unhappy in the future.
Every company has those people who jump into a fire when it happens (regardless of the technology) and work to figure out the problem and fix it. Those people may not be able to fully road-map your storage environment for the next 3 years, but they can find the failed controller and get it back online quickly. A person like that tends to fall into the “jack of all trades” category. On the flip side of this you have your “specialist”. This could be your Storage lead or architect who can road-map your entire storage environment and strategy for the next 3 to 5 years, and be dead on with their growth estimations. They typically maintain a very close relationships with Storage vendors in order to keep up with the most current Storage technologies and trends. This person can usually tell you everything you need to know about your Storage world; they can explain features that are not as commonly known and can provide a ton of value, or even issues that could be looming and how to fix them.
A good specialist provides ROI value that typically far exceeds their salary, however, don’t try to pull this person into an emergency situation when your Citrix farm crashes. Typically a specialist is exactly that, and when you take them out of their specialty, they tend to get a little crabby. I know there are exceptions to this, but I’ve also been in this business for far too long to know that those exceptions are few and far between. Specialists usually carry technology specific titles like “Storage Lead\Administrator”.
As with a specialist, a good jack of all trades person also provides ROI value that typically far exceeds their salary. However, unlike a specialist, measuring the value of a jack of all trades person can be a little harder to do, simply because of the nature of the work they do. The work of a specialist is usually straightforward and easy to identify or measure. The work of your jack of all trades is commonly across the board. It’s not unusual for your jack of all trades person to be working with the Web team one day, the SQL team the next day, and performing an emergency repair to your virtualization environment during the night between the two. The “jack of all trades” people typically carry more generic titles like “Systems Lead\Administrator”.
So let’s take a minute to help out those young up and coming IT geeks that are trying to figure this out for themselves. I’m going to borrow an often cited phrase from those new to the MMO gaming world, it almost never fails, the noobs always seem to start by asking “which is better”? And as those of us who are veterans in the MMO gaming world often reply, “Neither is better than the other, it simply depends”. It depends on not only on what you want to do, but how you want to do it. It also depends on where you want to work, and how you want to work. Let’s think about the differences between a specialist and a jack of all trades from a medical perspective. Your specialist in the medical world could be the cardiologist, while the jack of all trades person could be the ER doctor. They both provide value, but I can think of several different scenarios where I would prefer one over the other, yet I could not imagine a world without both of them.
So, you know exactly what path you want to follow now, right? Look, the truth is that there is no uber formula that will make you the all-star IT person down either path. I’ve worked with all kinds of people, and they were all successful in their own ways, but I have yet to find one person that I can point you towards and say “there, do exactly what they do and you will be successful”. As you progress through life, you will meet a lot of people who claim to have the recipe that will work for you. Some will tell you to get industry and\or technology certifications, others will tell you to get a college degree or several. I’m all for furthering your education whether it be through certifications or degrees, or both. But to me, it’s the soft skills and the harder to define nuances that make a person truly successful; not just in IT, but in life. Your technical skills and abilities can be brilliant, but if you don’t know how to work with people without offending them, your brilliance will quickly fade. And it’s these same skills that may help you to decide which path to follow in the IT world.
You’re ability and willingness to participate with the end-user population is important, but let’s say you have that part figured out. What’s next? If you talk to veterans of the IT world, they will tell you that the paths of becoming a jack of all trades or a specialist can be elusive, and at times difficult to understand. There are things to consider; amount of travel, relocating, type of industry you want to work in, and the size of the company that you consider to be ideal for you. If you live in small town America and the largest business in town is a family owned farm, and you really want to work there as an IT person, chances are they will not be looking for a Unified Communications specialist. But, if you live in Chicago, are single, and you love to travel. You might be able to get a job as a Unified Communications specialist for any number of large firms who provide that type of expertise to multiple clients around the world. Just be careful when you try to compare salaries of a jack of all trades and a specialist; it can be deceiving. You will be less likely to find a job with Microsoft, Google, or Dell as a jack of all trades (although, take it from me, they do exist), but not working for one of the IT giants, doesn’t mean you’re limiting your income potential. Working for the right smaller company can be just as rewarding from both a salary, and a lifestyle perspective.
So here we are some 1200 words later, and you may still be wondering what kind of IT person you are, or what kind of IT person you want to be when you grow up? Well, I want to know too! After all, look at the title of this post. I never intended this to be a statement, I just tend to babble sometimes, I really am curious to know what my fellow geeks consider themselves; jack of all trades, or specialists? Maybe some of you have been both, or maybe you have been one and experienced the “grass is greener” syndrome with the other. Or just maybe, you are doing exactly what you always wanted to do and love it. Let me know your experiences, as a veteran myself, I’m interested. And for those looking to join the IT world, they are probably interested too.