Professionally Speaking

The Diversification Dilemma

Is it better to specialize or be a jack-of-all-trades?

I have two questions: First, is it better to be a jack-of-all-trades or specialize in one product? I have been working in SMS for two years and have gone from administering an SMS 1.2 hierarchy to migrating and setting up SMS 2.0. Sometimes, I think I’m missing out on new technologies like Windows 2000 and Exchange Server.

Second, would it benefit me to work at a smaller company (say, 1,000 users) if I want to experiment with and implement a lot of the new technologies? Because I work for a large enterprise, it’s difficult to cross into other areas. For example, I’m a Win2K MCSE solely through self-study and initiative; but, at my company, another department handles Win2K migration and administration.
—Jade Chin, MCSE Alexandria, Virginia

You ask some universal questions: What do I want to do and where? The two questions are more interrelated than you may think. Part of the answer to your first question depends upon where you want to work. Smaller organizations need more generalists who have a number of technologies under their belt; larger organizations can afford, of course, to have experts in specific technologies. As Greg points out, the fact that you’re an SMS specialist should mean that you have a better understanding of Win2K and other technologies than the average person. If you like, you can think of your technical knowledge as you would a college degree—a major in one subject, maybe a minor in another—and have specific knowledge about a number of other areas. It sounds like you have a pretty solid major; maybe you want to start rounding that out. To use a stock market metaphor: You don’t want to have all of your investments in one sector; you need to diversify.

As far as your second question is concerned, a motivated employee should work for a company where there’s a) an opening, b) room to grow, c) comfort with the culture and d) sufficient compensation. Any size of organization can provide those qualifications, so I throw the question back to you: Where do you want to work? A large organization has certain advantages: a track record (it didn’t get that large overnight), a good infrastructure and standard policies and procedures. On the other hand, large companies no longer offer the degree of stability they once did; when layoffs or spin-offs come, you’re likely to be one of thousands affected, with little attention paid to your individual contribution. Also, in a large organization, you’re less likely to directly affect anything, much less the organization’s bottom line.

Although you might be following some industry standard with your organization size delimiters, a lot of our readers would consider 1,000 users to be a large organization. I think there are plenty of exciting and rewarding opportunities in what I call micro-organizations—less than 250 employees. There, you can have a meaningful impact on the entire company; but with that comes a corresponding level of pressure and responsibility. These organizations are much more likely to need a generalist chief-cook-and-bottle-washer type, with a concentration in the company’s primary technology need—whether that be ERP, e-commerce or whatever. It’s very rare, however, to find an organization of this size that needs, or can afford, SMS.

I’m assuming that your experience is with end-user organizations, but I also want to at least mention the other side (some might say the Dark Side) of the business: vendors. Again, the spectrum is wide as far as company size is concerned, ranging from IBMs and Microsofts down to the corner computer store. Vendors can also be divided into products (hardware and software) and services (integration and consulting). One thing most vendor organizations have going for them is variety. Where, in your present job, you may be doing the same SMS stuff day after day for the same people, with a vendor you’ll either be doing the same stuff for a variety of clients or working with a wide mixture of technologies.

About your statement that you’re “missing out on other new technology like Win2K and Exchange.” These are hardly new technologies. Also, be careful about confusing “Microsoft” with “technology.” There are many exciting new technologies out there that Microsoft doesn’t have anything to do with (yet)—Linux and voice/data integration, as examples.

If the security of a large organization is most appealing to you, then stay where you are. If the thirst for variety and learning drives you, perhaps a smaller organization with more diverse needs is the answer. Only you can make that decision, and it’s one you have to live with each morning when the alarm goes off.

About the Author

Steve Crandall, MCSE, is a principal of ChangeOverTime, a technology consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in small business and non-profit organizations. He's also assistant professor of Information Technology at Myers College and a contributing writer for Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine.

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Reader Comments:

Wed, Sep 11, 2002 Rahul Bagal India

Very good
I also got the way
Thanks

Wed, Sep 4, 2002 Greg Neilson Anonymous

Craig, You are dead right - those in leadership positions need to have a broad grasp of pretty much everything in IT. However, when I read the question posed to me I get the idea that this is someone that wants to stay very much in a hands-on type role. Therefore, my response went from there . . .

Sat, Aug 31, 2002 David West Chicago

Jade Chin, MCSE Alexandria, Virginia sounds like an expert at SMS. As a Jack-of-Most-Trades I have always been interested in SMS but all I find are articles but never recommendations on any books. There are never any classes on SMS offered so where did Jade learn?

Dave Ó¿Õ

Fri, Aug 30, 2002 Anonymous Anonymous

I thought your comments were right on versus some discussions I saw a year or two ago. I have my MCSE and work for a company of 20 employees. Not only do I keep up the network, but repair PC's, and spend the majority of time in the development of a custom database that constantly changes to meet the needs of the business. Yes, I often feel like I do not have the time to really dig deep and have a thorough understanding of a particular area. However, the great reward is that I feel like that I do have a major impact on not just the bottom line, but impact on the very essence of how the company operates. I am always asked "can we do this" or often, provide posibilities that they did not know existed. As you pointed out however, the difficulty is that I am only one person. As a result, I never stop. I am always behind in the things that needs to get done. I use to be a Mechanical Engineer with AT&T and never felt like that what I did really mattered. However, now, although I desire to learn more about some of the newer things that are happening, the joy of working for and with people who appreciate what you do and the joy of having a major impact in the company I work for compensates me for what I miss.

Fri, Aug 30, 2002 Mark Tulsa

I am wrestling with broad vs specialized and large vs medium vs small company for my next career move right now. Greg Neilson and Stephen Crandall's responses were thoughtful and good grist for my decision making process. I also have to give five stars to Joe of 8/30/2 for his comments. Bottom line, one had better make careful, informed decisions about career pathing if one wants to be happy with their work and well compensated for their time.

Fri, Aug 30, 2002 Joe Anonymous

The problems with being highly specialized in one area are threefold:
1.) Future releases of the Operating system may incorporate many of the specialized features of a particular add on or supplemental product as a standard function. The new O/S version may have easy to use or intelligent interfaces to accomplish the same tasks without the need of a highly trained specialist. All software is headed this way, more functionality for the dollar is standard fare with each new software release
2.) Some other company makes a better software widget than the one your company is currently using. Your employer buys it, and you find that your skills may not transfer easily to the new product.
3.) The more specialized you are the more difficult it becomes to find a really good job if you are laid off. Granted that when you do find a job the rewards may be higher, but meantime, the bills still keep coming in the mail.

Thu, Aug 29, 2002 David M. Reed Puget Sound

Don't pursue something simply because it looks more fun, or pays more money, or gives more prestige. Identify what YOU really want, and then become the best there is in doing that. Certainly the Anesthesiologists make more than most General Practitioners, but it seems more of the "family doctors" experience greater satisfaction with their profession.

Thu, Aug 29, 2002 Craig Anonymous

I didn't see any weight given to the value of being a Jack-of-all-trades type in leadership roles. I have personal experience at a large company, AND am very broad technically (and physically :-) (backoffice, development, dba, data modeling, hardware (Intel / SUN / HP). My skills have made me extremely valuable in architecting robust technical solutions. I know enough about many products and tools I can effectively determine best fit. I rely on 'experts' to confirm these fits, and implement these solutions. My point is, there are places for high-end 'broad' technitians who can lead initiatives.

Wed, Aug 28, 2002 Anonymous Anonymous

Great advise that will help in future decisions on my career

Wed, Aug 28, 2002 Anonymous Anonymous

Good advies and answers I felt.

Tue, Aug 27, 2002 Rich Huntington Station, NY

This was a great article. I am the Jack of all trades at a very small company [50 users nationwide] and I get to play with a lot of interesting technology. But the drawback is that everyone comes to me with everything. [I drink stress for breakfast]

Mon, Aug 19, 2002 Anonymous Anonymous

Excellent perspective

Mon, Aug 19, 2002 Anonymous Anonymous

very good yin and yang well balanced. I would have to say I'm a jack of all trades looking to specialize in either security or cisco products. I"m a dollar and sense kinda guy. Money is definitely a factor.

Thu, Aug 15, 2002 Anonymous Anonymous

Very good answer to provoking questions

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