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Article by Mohan Babu

Working Abroad - To be a specialist or a generalist?

Who is more marketable—a specialist or a generalist? MOHAN BABU points out that irrespective of the debate, IT professionals need to keep in mind two aspects of their career—their personal interests and market demand for their skill sets

The slowdown in the technology sector is leading many professionals in the industry to revisit their personal career goals and to reassess their skill sets. I have received several interesting responses from readers about my recent article on change management. Many of the mails were from programmers and techies trying to make some sense of the current state in the IT industry. The responses ranged from the need for IT professionals to move from one technology to the other, to the need for deep specialisation in one particular area of the industry or technology. This is the age-old argument for or against specialisation, a topic most professionals, even in other professions like law, medicine or finance are ambivalent about. A number of readers also asked if I thought it was a good idea for them to be shifting from one technology to the other because they heard of an increased demand. Given the number of queries, I wasn’t surprised to receive a mail from an experienced J2EE programmer, asking if he should be moving into mainframes!

In recent times IT hiring managers have become extremely fastidious about the skill sets they are trying to hire. Previously, if the job required skills A, B, C, D and E, a good, experienced candidate with expertise in A and B or A, B and C would be invited for an interview and more often than not, hired based on his presentation. The market was tight and hiring managers realised that a person with a good IT background and “some” experience in one particular software could be expected to become productive in other similar technologies with very little hand-holding. However, as the trend moves towards a buyers market, hiring managers are realising that candidates with the exact skill sets they are looking for are available in the marketplace, and are not willing to settle for anything less. This gets us back to the original question: Who is more marketable—a specialist or a generalist?

Before we get into a discussion over the merits of one or the other, let us first set a framework for this discussion. In IT, a “specialist” is generally thought to be someone with a deep expertise in a certain technology or functional area. The most common example of a specialist is a DBA (Database Administrator) or SysAdmin (Systems Administrator). Specialists also include IT professionals with expertise in certain niche technologies or tools like Actuate reporting, mainframe with Telon or Oracle forms, and includes people with expertise in certain system methodologies like Web architecture.

In my argument in the previous paragraph, when I was describing skills A, B, C and D, I was trying to talk about the mix of technologies that go into a typical project. For instance, a large Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) project typically involves a mix of multiple technologies and platforms with a “core” middleware product. People with knowledge of the different technologies are generally hired at the beginning of such projects. Especially valuable are designers and architects with knowledge of multiple tools and technologies.

A hiring manager planning to staff high-level architects and designers for the project is going to look for “generalists” with a good understanding of multiple technologies. The same hiring manager, when looking for developers and programmers, is going to seek people with very specific skill sets. A SysAdmin for the project will be expected

to bring his software version control expertise (to be more specific, CVS or PVCS experience). Assuming the project involves Oracle technologies, a DBA will be expected to bring his Oracle skills to the table.

Given this overview, individual IT professionals need to take a holistic view of two aspects of their careers: one, their personal interests, and second the market demand for their chosen skill sets. Trade publications and magazines regularly carry articles on industry surveys and trends, especially in the local markets. Although I haven’t been closely following the nature of IT projects being outsourced to India, my guess would be that a good percentage of those involve legacy mainframe, database and OLTP technologies. Individual IT professionals need to observe those trends closely and see if they can tailor their skills to meet the demand from IT companies. Also, such tailoring should be based on their key areas of interest since at the end of the day, personal job satisfaction will also play a key role in their success in the chosen vocation.





About the Author

  • A Bio and profile of the author, Mohan Babu, can be found at his homepage
  • Mohan has authored a book on Offshoring and Outsourcing (Publisher McGraw Hill, India), a link to which can be found here
  • Mohan has also authored an Online book on "Life in the US," available for free download.
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    ©Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2005

    Mohan Babu is an international consultant trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ where IT meets business. E-mail: mohan He is also the author of a recent book on "Offshoring IT Services"

    All rights are reserved. Mohan Babu ("Author") hereby grants permission to use, copy and distribute this document for any NON-PROFIT purpose, provided that the article is used in its complete, UNMODIFIED form including both the above Copyright notice and this permission notice. Reproducing this article by any means, including (but not limited to) printing, copying existing prints, or publishing by electronic or other means, implies full agreement to the above non-profit-use clause. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of Mohan Babu. 

    Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. This Article was originally published in Express Computers


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