IT Generalists and Specialists

IT Professionals generally fall into two broad categories based on their career focus: generalists and specialists. These two categories actually carry far more differences than they may at first appear to do and moving between them can be extremely difficult once a career path has been embarked upon; often the choice to pursue one path or the other is made very early on in a career.

There are many aspects that separate these two types of IT professionals, one of the most poignant and misunderstood is the general marketplace for these two skillsets. It is often assumed, I believe, that both types exist commonly throughout the IT market but this is not true. Each commands its own areas.

In the small and medium business market, the generalist rules. There is little need for specialties as there are not enough technical needs in any one specific area to warrant a full time staff member dedicating themselves to them. Rather, a few generalists are almost always called upon to handle a vast array of technical concerns. This mentality also gives way to “tech support sprawl” where IT generalists are often called upon to venture outside of IT to manage legacy telephones, electrical concerns, HVAC systems and even sprinklers! The jack of all trades view of the IT generalist has a danger of being taken way too far.

It should be mentioned, though, that in the SMB space the concept of a generalist is often one that remains semi-specialized. SMB IT is nearly a specialization on its own. Rather than an SMB generalist touching nearly every technology area it is more common for them to focus across a more limited subset. Typically an SMB generalist will be focused primarily on Windows desktop and server administration along with application support, hardware management and some light security. SMB generalists may touch nearly any technology but the likelihood of doing so is generally rather low.

In the enterprise space, the opposite is true. Enterprise IT is almost always broken down by departments, each department handling very focused IT tasks. Typically these include networking, systems, storage, desktop, helpdesk, application specific support, security, datacenter support, database administration, etc. Each department focuses on a very specific area, possibly with even more specialization within a department. Storage might be broken up by block and file. Systems by Windows, mainframe and UNIX. Networking by switching and firewalls. In the enterprise there is a need for nearly all IT staff to be extremely deep in their knowledge and exposure to the products that

they support while needing little understanding of products that they do not support as they have access to abundant resources in other departments to guide them where there are cross interactions. This availability of other resources and a departmental separation of duties, highlights the differences in generalists and specialists.

Generalists live in a world of seeing “IT” as their domain to understand and oversee, potentially segmented by “levels” of difficulty rather than technological focus and typically a lack of specialized resources to turn to internally for help. While specialists live in a world of departmental division by technology where there are typically many peers working at different experience levels within a single technology stack.

It is a rare SMB that would have anything but a generalist working there. It is not uncommon to have many generalists, even generalists who lean towards specific roles internally but who remain very general and lacking a deep, singular focus. This fact can make SMB roles appear more specialized that they truly are to IT professionals who have only experienced the SMB space. It is not uncommon for SMB IT professionals to not even be aware of what specialized IT roles are like.

A good example of this is that job titles common and generally well defined in the enterprise space for specialists are often used accidentally or incorrectly with generalists not realizing that the job roles are specific. Specialists titles are often used for generalists positions that are not truly differentiated.

Two exceptionally common examples are the network engineering and IT manager titles.  For a specialist, network engineer means a person whose full time, or nearly full time, job focus is in the design and planning and possibly implementation of networks including the switching, routing, security, firewalling, monitoring, load balancing and the like, of the network itself.  They have no role in the design or management of the systems that use the network, only the network itself.  Nor do they operate or maintain the network, that is for the network administrator to do who, again, only touches switches, routers, firewalls, load balancers and so forth not computers, printers, servers and other systems.  It is a very focused title.  In the SMB it is common to give this title to anyone who operates any device on a network often with effectively zero design or network responsibilities at all.  No role overlaps.

Likewise in the enterprise an IT manager is a management role in an IT department.  What an IT manager manages, like any manager, is people.  In the SMB this title may be used correctly but it is far more common to find the term applies to the same job role to which network engineer is used – someone who has no human reports and manages devices on a network like computers and printers.  Not a manager at all, but a generalist administrator.  Very different than what the title implies or how it is expected to be used in the large business and enterprise space.

Where specialists sometimes enter the SMB realm is through consultants and service providers who provide temporary, focused technical assistance to smaller firms that cannot justify having those skills maintained internally. Typically areas where this is common is storage and virtualization where consultants will often design and implement core infrastructure components and leave the day to day administration of them to the in-house generalists.

In the enterprise the situation is very different. Generalists do exist but, in most cases, the generalization is beaten out of them as their careers take them down the path of one specialization or another. Entry level enterprise workers will often come in without a clear expectation of a specialization but over time find themselves going into one quite naturally. Most, if not all, IT growth paths through enterprise IT require a deep specialization (which may mean focusing on management rather than technical.) Some large shops may provide for cross training or exposure to different disciplines but rarely is this extensively broad and generally does not last once a core specialization is chosen.

This is not to say that enterprises and other very large shops do not have generalists, they do. It is expected that at highest echelons of enterprise IT that the generalists roles will begin to reemerge as new disciplines that are not seen lower in the ranks. These titles are often labeled differently such as architect, coordinator or, of course, CIO.

The reemergence of generalists at the higher levels of enterprise IT poses a significant challenge for an industry that does little to groom generalists. This forces the enterprise generalist to often “self-groom” – preparing themselves for a potential role through their own devices. In some cases, organic growth through the SMB channels can lead to an enterprise generalist but this is extremely challenging due to the lack of specialization depth available in the majority of the SMB sector and a lack of demonstrable experience in the larger business environment.

These odd differences that almost exclusively fall down SMB vs. enterprise lines creates a natural barrier, beyond business category exposure, to IT professionals migrating back and forth between larger and smaller businesses. The type of business and work experience is vastly different and the technology differences are dramatically different. Both enterprise IT pros are often lost moving to an SMB and SMB pros find that what they felt was deep, focused experience in the SMB is very shallow in the enterprise. The two worlds operate differently at every level, but outside of IT the ability to move between them is far easier.

Enterprise IT carries the common titles that most people associate with IT career specialization: system administration, network engineer, database administrator, application support, helpdesk, desktop support, datacenter technician, automation engineer, network operations center associate, project manager, etc. SMB titles are often confusing both inside of and outside of the industry. It is very common for SMB roles to coopt specialization titles and apply them to roles that barely resemble their enterprise counterparts in any way and do not match the expectation of a title at all, as I demonstrated earlier. This further complicates the fluid movement between realms as both sides become increasingly confused trying to understand how people and roles related to each other coming from the other realm. There are titles associated with generalists, such as the rather dated LAN Administration, IT Generalist and architect titles but their use, in the real world, is very rare.  The SMB struggles to define meaningful titles and has no means by which to apply or enforce these across the sector.  This lack of clear definition will continue to plague both the SMB and generalists who have little ability to easily convey the nature of their job role or career path.

Both career paths offer rewarding and broad options but the choice between them does play a rather significant role in deciding the flavor of a career.  Generalists, beyond gravitating towards smaller businesses, will also likely picking up a specialization in an industry over time as they move into higher salary ranges (manufacturing, medical, professional services support, legal, etc.)  Specialists will find their focus is in their technology and their focus on market will be less.  Generalist will find it easier to find work in any given local market, specialists will find that they often need to move to major markets and potentially only the core markets will provide great growth opportunities but within those markets mobility and career flexibility will be very good.  Generalists have to work hard to keep up with a broad array of technologies and changes in the market.  Specialists will often have deep vendor resources available to them and will find the bulk of their educational options come directly from the vendors in their focus area.

It is often personality that pushes young IT professionals into one area or the other.  Specialists are often those that love a particular aspect of IT and not others or want to avoid certain types of IT work as well as those that look at IT more as a predetermined career plan.  Generalists often come from the ranks of those that love IT as a whole and fear being stuck in just one area where there are so many aspects to explore.  Generalists are also far more likely to have “fallen into” IT rather than having entered the field having a strategic plan.

Understanding how each approaches the market and how the markets approach IT professionals help the IT professional have an opportunity to assess what it is that they like about their field and make good career choices to keep themselves happy and motivated and allows them to plan in order to maximize the impact of their career planning decisions.  Too often, for example, small business generalists will attempt to do a specialization focus, very often in enterprise Cisco networking just as a common example, which have almost no potential value to the marketplace where their skills and experience are focused.  Professionals doing this will often find their educational efforts wasted and be frustrated that the skills that they have learned go unused and atrophy while also being frustrated that gaining highly sought skills do not appear to contribute to new job opportunities or salary increases.

There is, of course, opportunity to move between general and special IT roles.  But the more experience a professional gains in one area or the other, the more difficult it becomes to make a transition, at least without suffering from a dramatic salary loss in order to do so.  Early in an IT career, there is relatively high flexibility to move between these areas at the point where the broadening of generalization is minimal or the deep technical skills of specialization are not yet obtained.  Entry level positions in both areas are effectively identical and there is little differentiation in career starting points.

Greater perspective on IT careers gives everyone in the field more ability and opportunity to pursue and achieve the IT career that will best satisfy their technical and personal work needs.

4 thoughts on “IT Generalists and Specialists”

  1. The average generalist is going to make far less than the average specialist. Primarily this is because of one being in smaller companies and the other in larger and, by extension of this, one having the “network and proximity professional effect” available to them and the other not.

    But at the highest ranks, specialists, even in large firms, give way to generalists. So the very highest paid positions are mostly generalists, but those positions are also the most uncommon.

  2. Excellent post Alan!
    I’m in my first IT job. I work in a manufacturing industry and it’s structure is really weird.
    It is a medium to big enterprise, but the feeling that I have is that it’s administrative core looks like SMB.
    As I said, I started just a year ago here, but I feel that it has expanded it’s production and sales very fast, but the “business mind” did not changed.

    At this point we have about 250 to 300 employees, where there are about 150 production, 100 sales and only 50 administrative roles. On IT we are on 3.

    I did notice that we had no organization… no ticket system, no urgency treatment, no specialized knowledge; we had nothing…

    My first concern was to organize everything up. I improved somethings, but there are still many limitations and person problems…

    Your article helped me to understand better what is happening to this enterprise and with my career.

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