Nerd Journey 026: The Generalist/Specialist Divide

Welcome to episode 26 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two VMware Solution Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode, we discuss the generalist vs. specialist divide.

Original Recording Date: 2019-02-16

Topics – The Generalist vs. Specialist Divide

  • We’re recording this in sickness because we’re both under the weather this week. This episode is brought to you by the letters DM and PE.
  • How does John like the NUC he purchased a while back?

4:10 General Podcast Outline for This Episode

4:51 What is a Generalist?

  • Someone with an exposure to working a number of different technologies (a "jack / jill" of all trades), likely not an expert in any specific area
    • Examples: Help Desk Technician, Systems Administrator
      • These examples require exposure to a number of areas, and the overarching reach of the role may prevent 400 – 500 level depth of knowledge.
  • Generalists may need an escalation point when something goes beyond their reach (i.e. a specialist).

8:25 What is a Specialist?

  • Someone with a deep knowledge of a specific area under the IT umbrella (400 – 500 level knowledge)
  • Area of focus is a primary responsibility
    • Examples: Network Engineer, Database Administrator, .NET Developer
  • Does working for a vendor make someone a specialist?

11:34 Can a generalist be a specialist?

  • Yes – it is likely a specialty for a generalist is deeper than the average generalist but not as deep as a dedicated specialist.
  • There is probably an overlap between the pure generalist and pure specialist (think Venn Diagram here).
    • Listen to John’s examples of this from the Help Desk Technician role and Network Engineer role.
  • Specialties may be determined by the Area of Destiny model we discussed in a previous episode.
  • Nick cites learning ERP system tricks from Tom Delicati as his way of developing a specialty while working as a Systems Administrator.
  • A generalist working with specialist resources can help the generalist go deeper (i.e. working with support).
  • The industry in which you work and understanding business goals within that industry may be the specialty rather than a specific technology.

21:47 Can a specialist be a generalist?

  • Yes – what if the specialty area is pretty broad? Go back to the Network Engineer example.
    • Is being a specialist all about how you’re perceived?
    • Are Nick and John VMware specialists? You decide.

26:04 Mythbusters, Nerd Journey Edition

  • Being a generalist gives you more opportunity and less risk than being a specialist.
    • There may be a corresponding lower compensation band for generalists because they are easier to find.
  • Many stay generalists to ensure exposure to many technologies.
    • Specialists need a broad range of knowledge in addition to just their specialty area.
  • It is easier to move from generalist to specialist than the other way around.
    • Possibly, but this may be a perception problem. It depends on the willingness of the individual to learn new things.
    • Check out episodes 6 and 7 on training and training adjacencies.
  • John weighs in on the risk of being a specialist.
  • Specialists make more money because of a unique skillset.
    • Money is about demand and the people with skills available to fill that demand.
    • Anything you have that rules out many others (i.e. a top secret clearance) is a potential reason for more pay.
  • Being a specialist limits exposure to new products and skills and narrows your viewpoint.
    • No matter what you do, by definition what you do narrows your focus.
    • Getting outside the bubble may require extra effort but is a must to stay industry relevant.

43:10 Career tips for the generalist

  • Stay flexible, and put it time to stay relevant.
  • Be aware of what the branches of possibility are in your industry.
  • Choose a couple of areas that are of interest to dive deeper.
    • There is not enough time to be a specialist at everything. You have to focus your interests.
    • It’s a good position to be in if most everything is of some interest to you.

48:17 Career tips for the specialist

  • Consider how general your area of specialty happens to be. Go back to the Database Administrator example.
    • There is a generalist specialist divide within the specialty (i.e. possible ways to level up by becoming more specialized).
  • What is it I am doing in the industry, and how important is it in the industry? Finding areas where demand outstrips supply could be a smart option.
  • Adjacencies can be a logical next step. John gives a great example for this one.
  • Learn something in a completely different discipline for fun. Think Area of Destiny.
  • Take off the blinders of your company and your role as you look at the industry.
  • It sounds like we’re encouraging everyone to be a full stack engineer. Check out Scott Lowe‘s Full Stack Journey Podcast for practice tips on getting there.
  • Dive into something interesting in the least costly way possible rather than obsessing over the right tool.

Contact us if you need help on the journey.

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