In the early days of business computing,  the 1980’s for most outside of major urban centers,  a large portion of the workforce dabbled in a wide range of things. This resulted in most becoming a “Jack of all trades”.  In the past ten years there’s been a gradual but steady shift towards specialization. The main reason was diversity of products,  proliferation of technology and new standards to sift through. It was fairly common for everyone to handle all sides of a computing environment. Hardware and software.

Today,  the typical business IT shop contains a lot of neatly organized, heavily certified, specialists. Each area of IT has grown into its own vertical Canyon of knowledge and practices. Networking,  storage, web farms, blade servers, and now virtualization and cloud services, hybrid application platforms, Federated authentication and access control, wireless and mobility.

Yet somehow, a quick scan of open IT positions on any job site clearly shows a drive for generalists by virtue of gaining more potential utility from a single hire. Doing more with less. You’ve probably seen them. Skills “required” include “extensive experience” with Cisco, VMware, Microsoft Windows Server and Hyper-v, HP, Dell, and Lenovo hardware, imaging,  packaging,  deployment,  web development, SharePoint, Drupal, SQL Server, scripting in ten languages and so on. Then you scroll down to see the title is “systems administrator“.

But here’s the rub: when talking to these employers,  they still insist on having deep knowledge in each area. Essentially a Generalist of specialities. Doing even more with even less.

What these seekers don’t realize is that while it is indeed possible to get that type of person and within the target salary range,  they can’t possible be as wide and deep as expected. If they’re bionic or completely robotic,  maybe.

Something has to give. Just like the law of two features (good, fast or cheap: pick two), the time and involvement required to master each product,  including all of the common scenarios, is such that when combined, would take more years than most of the related products even exist.

An even rubbery rub is that if you present yourself as a Generalist,  it’s now considered too wide and shallow. Flexibility is of less value than potentially being an expert in everything. As if that were even possible.

When a young person asks me what to pursue within the IT world, I just say “whatever you find interesting and rewarding”. For most that translates into software. The relative variances between languages and tools is more related and relatable than the even wider range that exists in the infrastructure world. Mastering one language is often useful in learning other languages. Not as valid an argument when applying that logic to mastering storage versus learning about federated services or group policy.

In any case,  as automation gradually re-allocates the need for IT human labor,  and eventually dries it up to a much smaller puddle,  the trick will be to not only remain focused and certified,  but flexible.

Long live the Generalist.


2 thoughts on “The IT Generalist is Dead, Long Live…

  1. I am proud to call myself an IT Generalist. Put me in ANY situation in IT and I can perform well, not perfect but VERY well. The flexibility that comes with being knowledgeable on a wide variety of IT technologies and able to research nearly any topic far outweighs the few benefits of focusing on the app of the month. My expertise can blow away almost every IT Masters degree holder any day of the week – and I love that.

    Keep up the good work and I wish you luck in the job search my friend.


    1. The flip-side of this irony is how poorly prepared most “IT Business Analysts” seem to be these days. Ten years ago, they were ex-engineers. Today, it seems they don’t have nearly as much IT experience.

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