Career Coach - 11

Career Coach is a column that gives IT professionals a chance to pose questions about training, certification, salaries or any other career-related issues to eWEEKs panel of IT managers, hiring and training experts.

Dear Career Coach: I have a 10+ year background in a variety of IT specialties. I utilize various skills to complete multiple types of IT duties (DBA, systems administrator,project management, programming, etc.) each day. I define this as a "whole picture" specialist, good at many things, not the expert at one thing.

Why would management push me to choose a specific specialty? How do I explain my "whole picture" value in a manner that technical and non-technical management can understand? --Anonymous

Fran Rabuck

Career Coach: FRAN RABUCK

Why not go to the source for a direct answer--your boss or management? I can speculate on some reasons why they want you to specialize: Maybe youre really not contributing to the individual duties. Maybe youre seen as a kibitzer. Maybe youre really needed in a particular department. Maybe a bean counter needs to put you somewhere.

Whatever the reason, I think you may be at a crossroad in your career--technical or management. That needs to be your first decision, and you will need to give something up to go down one of those paths and advance yourself. Why not consider agreeing to focus in a particular area for about two years. Get an agreement now that, at the end of that period, you could be rotated into another specialty.

If you really want to be valued as a jack of all trades, maybe you should consider working for a smaller organization. Or consider working in a broad consulting role within a business unit of your organization.

Fran Rabuck is the Mobile Practice Leader for Alliance Consulting. He has held a variety of positions over his 20+ year career in IT, but enjoys focusing on mobile technology--for now.

Brian Jaffe

Career Coach: BRIAN D. JAFFE

Outside of consultants, IT generalists are usually found in smaller environments that cant afford a larger staff with different specialists. The larger the organization, the greater the urge to assign people to precise roles and responsibilities.

Management may simply be unable ignore its instincts when asking you to pick a single discipline. It is entirely possible that management finds it difficult to manage you, or may not know how to, when you wear so many hats. They may simply think youre spreading yourself too thin. Or they may think that youve become so much of a one-man-show that youre losing your ability to work with others in a team environment (or that youre grabbing all the fun and leaving only grunt work for others).

The easiest way to find out the reason they want you to pick a specialty is to simply ask them. One word ought to do it: "Why?"

You can explain that by maintaining skills in multiple disciplines you offer some unique benefits: 1) being able to see the shortest path to a problems resolution; 2) knowing how to identify problem areas that others might not see; and 3) being able to identify innovative ways to combine technologies from different disciplines.

Even if you pick a single discipline in which to specialize, your skills as a generalist will not go unnoticed, or underutilized. Its a rule of IT that, just like water seeking its own level, users and peers will find the shortest path to knowledge and assistance (even if it means calling their brother-in-law, as opposed to the help desk). So, even if you have to call yourself a DBA, others will still seek you out for your other skills.

In all likelihood, youll end up as a jack of all trades, master of one.

Brian D. Jaffe is a contributing editor for eWEEK and an IT director in New York City. He can be reached at brian@red55.com.

Gary Bronson

Career Coach: GARY BRONSON

The drive to have key individuals specialize generally deals with the complexity of the environment. Often in larger organizations or in complex environments, it requires managers to have resources focused on specific areas in order to minimize risk and optimize the tools/equipment/applications in place. Much of the equipment corporations depend on requires optimization efforts. Although the vendors and consultants have expertise with the products, the knowledge of your unique environment is generally lacking. The optimum expertise is when you have someone with expert knowledge of the equipment AND the environment. This comes from within and is extremely difficult to achieve when you are attempting to "generalize."

However, with that said, generalists have a definite role in the organization. Generalists who have a diversified background AND strong communication skills can make excellent contributions to a company as team leaders, project managers, supervising managers, business analysts, etc. One of the key complaints with IT, as an organization, is that we lack "business" focus, or the ability to deliver on time, within budget and to meet customer expectations.

If Im the manager you are trying to convince, you have two options: 1) Tell me how good you are; or 2) show me how good you are. Saying that you understand the "whole picture" means that you should be able to identify a key initiative that would align with the goals of the business and deliver optimum value. Tell me who the stakeholders are. Explain to me how you would accomplish that initiative. Give me your best estimate on how long it will take. Give me an estimate of key cost elements. Tell me how you would go about getting stakeholder buy-in. As you "demonstrate" (rather than trying to explain) your knowledge and insight, doors will open.

Gary Bronson is IT enterprise operations manager at Washington Group International, in Boise, Idaho.

Randy Dugger

Career Coach: RANDY DUGGER

I would guess that management feels its time for the person to become highly proficient in one area. However, the real trick is picking the specialty that ensures you have a place in the organization, or one whose skills could be transferred to another organization quickly.

Generally, in most organizations, you see people with specialties. In the consulting field, however, its different. There its very good to have a broad background and to be good at a lot of things.

If I were you, the pitch I would be making is that, as a person with multiple skills, I see the "whole picture." As a specialist, I would only have a vertical slice view of the big picture. Of course, management may already have those generalist slots filled, and thus they want this person to specialize in a skill area that they feel needs to be bolstered.

Randy Dugger is CEO of Dugger & Associates, based in Silicon Valley.

Steve Curcuru

Career Coach: STEVE CURCURU

Management probably pigeonholes you into the "jack of all trades, master of none" category and fears that your lack of depth in a specific area will sooner or later get their system into trouble. They may worry that, trying to be helpful, youll delve just a bit beyond your depth and blow something up. They may also fear a lack of accountability--exactly which part of the system are you responsible for?

Also, larger organizations often base salary, bonuses and other rewards on a very specific set of performance and learning criteria. "Jack of all trades, throw it all at me" probably doesnt fit their evaluation scale.

Steve Cucuru is IT Wizard at Mugar Enterprises in Boston.