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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