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To specialize or not? It all depends, experts say

To specialize or not? It all depends, experts say.

In a world of cutbacks, downsizing, layoffs and generally bad economic mojo, life as an IT professional can be hard to navigate. There comes a time in every IT professional's life when deciding the next steps in an ever-evolving career is a tough prospect. But unless you evolve, you're stuck with the same job responsibilities you had two years ago.

It can begin to feel like you're in the movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character is forced to re-live the same day over and over again. When working in the IT profession, it can seem that you're stuck in the same endless loop, no matter what you try to change or what you attempt to inject into your mundane schedule. This is one of the primary reasons why there are so many IT burnouts and also why there are so many job-jumpers -- IT professionals who work no longer than two years for each employer. Eventually, the character in Groundhog Day breaks out of the spell that was forcing him to re-live the same day repeatedly. But how can an IT professional break out of the loop?

There are two schools of thought: generalization and specialization. When you generalize, you become someone who knows quite a bit about a particular technology. When you specialize, you become an expert in one facet of that technology.

In the current economy, with downsizing and cutbacks looming, the majority of IT workers feel that generalization -- that is, being the jack-of-all-trades -- can keep employment avenues open.

Dana Daugherty, a senior system engineer at PRA International, a McLean, Va.-based drug developer, and author of the Start to Finish Guide to SMS Software Delivery (, puts it this way: "In economic times such as these, I feel like generalizing helps to keep your options open. More mobility, more possibilities. If one spends all his/her time on one technology only, the only job that will be available will be within that specialty. I'm personally not comfortable limiting my options."

But on the other side of the coin, Daugherty also admits: "On the other hand, if one is very general in their career development, they will never earn the recognition and pay that comes with becoming an expert in a field. I've never been one to be a generalist at anything."

Michael Schultz, a Microsoft consultant who works in southern Connecticut and author of the pending MOF Editing Guide (, takes a different tack. He believes you need to incorporate both methodologies. "To position yourself for success in the industry, you need to have a strong foundation, as well as a developing expertise," he said. "In doing this, you can make yourself irreplaceable by knowing an extensive amount about individual subjects, as well as increase your market value by serving as a resource when other roles need [to be] filled."

A lot of IT workers tend to agree with Schultz -- that you should find a way of combining the two methodologies. A recent poll on shows that most IT professionals started their careers in a general capacity.

One individual put it like this: "When you're young, you should be very generalized. If you stay too generalized as you get older, then you won't command the big bucks when you should. (Supply and demand are what determines wages, after all, so high specialization will get bigger bucks, as long as you're good at it.)"

However, if you decide to specialize and keep your attention focused on one specific area, you might miss out on the "next big thing." You may find that in two years' time, a huge opportunity has passed you by.

A recent report by Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. reflects something similar. Instead of discussing specialization in terms of specific technologies, the report, authored by analyst Tunick Morello, says that part of generalization should be tuned toward business skills. According to the report: "Although IS organizations will maintain technical competencies and skills, most will move their portfolio heavily toward business, management and interpersonal competencies. To boost credibility of their organizations, CIOs and IT executives must refocus selection and development of people toward non-technical skills and expand learning opportunities to roles, assignments, projects and team responsibilities."

A common consensus is that if you want more opportunity for employment, you should generalize. If you want more opportunity for a higher salary, specialization is the key. In a good economy, specialization can help pad the bank account. In a poor economy, generalization can keep you employed. Learning to properly juggle the two is the means for a long and successful career in IT.

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