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JumpCloud Alumni
JumpCloud Alumni

I watched a conversation (such a strange turn of phrase - our language has morphed in such weird ways) a while back that centered around whether silos of responsibility or general responsibility were preferable. Should you specialize or generalize?

I don’t actually have a “do this, not that” type of answer for you. Instead, I can give you some examples of each and I can talk about how I faced those challenges and how they might impact your career or your business. There really is a place for both.  

Think about it – if you’re shopping for average liquor you’ll go to a grocery store right? But if you’re shopping for an Eagle Rare 17-year bourbon, you’re headed to a specialty store. Both types of stores have their advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s explore…

Jack or Master?

jack of all trades.png

I started out my career in IT as a generalist. I had a white glove consultancy for SOHOs and SMBs. Over the years, I expanded my practice from general OS (yes, I’ve always done both Mac and Windows) support to include networking. Then OS X Server showed up and I learned how to bend it to do my bidding. With that, my practice morphed from general user support to the more complicated server-based offices. I had to enhance my skillset to include intricate networking (I sort of miss the nerding out days of having to math the subnets manually) and deep dives into DNS (hence, @alwaysdns on Twitter, in the MacAdmins Slack, other assorted place on the interwebs). 

I went from being a generalist to specializing in server-based clients. And after a few years of that, things changed again and I adjusted my business focus from depth back to breadth, adding in cloud, SaaS, and a variety of other MSP offerings as well as becoming more of a business partner with my clients than their break/fix or setup-and-installation consultant.

I suspect that many of my friends and colleagues out there have seen their jobs change as well. Maybe you started out at the helpdesk and learned to support “all the things” in general. As you became more adept at clearing the ticket queue, maybe you got interested in learning more about networks or took an interest in focusing on SalesForce or some other BizOps tool. Or maybe you started out as a graphic designer/Adobe expert and, as frequently happens, you branched out to become the resident IT person. 

Wherever you started, it is unlikely that you remained stuck for very long. Your job probably morphed into something else either broader or deeper.

On Breadth

It is no small endeavor to have a wide breadth of knowledge. Your audience is more diverse and your work is never boring. Every support task is different. Every day is different. If flexibility and change are your jam, breadth is the way to go.

Your users come to depend on you because you are the generalist, the one who has all the answers. Your <secret> superpower is that while you may not know every answer, you’re a master at finding the answers. As an accomplished generalist, you have the ability to see the big picture, which makes you a great project lead.

This can be a very gratifying experience. It can be fun and adventurous, but it can also be tiring, keeping up with so many different topics all the time. You have to be careful to allot time in your week for reading tech news & blogs and the continuing education is, well, continuous. Every OS update is something new to add to your cache of knowledge. 

While it can make scheduling staff easier if you have a team of generalists, you do have to be sure that all of your team members get the same training so that you don’t have holes in your support abilities.

On Depth

The technical specialist’s superpower is that they know their “product” inside out. This person is quick to have an answer to a specific technology problem and, frankly, they have a grateful following of people who look to them as the expert.

This, just like the generalist’s experience, can be very gratifying. Everyone wants to feel needed and valued. I won’t lie; when server and DNS were my focus it felt like I had conquered the mountain. There weren’t a lot of people with my expertise at the time and, especially as a woman in IT, it felt great to finally have garnered respect from my community. I saw an increase in consulting work as clients (both new and existing) wanted to implement the features that OSXS brought to the table. 

And as a Subject Matter Expert, you probably see more work coming your way from other IT Admins who need your expertise. Your work and knowledge create high quality results that increase your value and make you irreplaceable (which is a nice position to be in). I know that I saw an increase in referrals from my fellow consultants who needed the fine point expertise I possessed. Times were good.

On Being Flexible

And as the IT world changed again (with a fond farewell to OSXS), I found myself branching out again. Things were moving to the cloud and, with that, the need for server expertise wasn’t as high. It would be best if we had a crystal ball so we could plan for these kinds of turns but, alas, we don’t. 

What we have is the internet, though. And with that, we have a plethora of prognosticators and pontificators, each with their own opinion on the next wave of important IT. But it’s better to watch what the vendors are producing and what their roadmaps are showing than to abide by rumor mills. By paying attention to them, you can get an idea of where you want to put your training dollars next.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that wherever you are today…you (probably) won’t be in the same spot in a few years. Be flexible. Be open to change. Be forward-thinking.

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