Working Abroad - To be a specialist or a generalist?
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
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
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.
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.