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Career Question? Specialist versus Generalist dilema

Posted on 2003-11-07
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I am sorry, I did not find any other appropriate place to post this, jet I need help of the fine minds residing on this board.
I am now in IT field for 3 years working as a network admin and feel that I need some career planning advice. I have bachelor degree in unrelated field, MCSE, Citrix CCA and CCNA certifications and been working mostly in windows environment so far.
What is disturbing me is that I feel that I know a little bit about these technologies but not much in depth about either of it. I question how long should I generalize before I specialize?
I would like to advance my career and it feels that only taking more certification exams doesn’t do it. Neither salary changes much neither I feel that I am remarkably more knowledgeable after it.
I feel that I am too much of generalist and that should specialize, but not sure on what track.
I need I niche but need help picking up one which has a future and substantial earning possibilities.
I have also been thinking about adding an MBA to my education as I way of advancing.

Could you help me with your advice or tell me to whom I could possibly turn for help?

Thank you very much.
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Question by:howei
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by:lrmoore
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Good generalists are very hard to find. I've worked with server specialists that don't know how to spell TCP/IP.
I've worked with programmers that don't have a clue as to how the Internet works.
I've worked with CCIE's that can't figure out how to open Outlook...
Mosts specialists could not tell you the difference between Outlook and Outlook Express, or POP3 and IMAP4.
My advice, keep up with all the general stuff until you find what you really like to do. I know you're looking at the security world. It's good to get a grasp on all the concepts and what's happening in the world in that area. Security is obviously a hot growth area.
But - is it what you really like to do?
These days you have to specialize in something. I've chosen to specialize in Cisco because I really like to know that I can play that IOS like a fiddle and get packets where they need to be, and I know the PIX firewall inside out. I'm also specialized in Cisco's brand of security, so I get to dabble in that field also.
I have not kept up my MCSE from NT4 to Win2k and now Win2k3. I find the capabilities of Win2k3 and Active Directory quite daunting. You don't see me hanging out in those Topic Areas much, unless there is a networking type question.

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by:jdickerson
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I'm in my 7th year of IT and I can concur with lrmoore. I've seen MCSEs that couldn't re-build a pc to save their career, and I've seen AS/400 programmers that could program with the best in RPG and COBOL but can't use Paint. My take on the certifications are that they look great on your resume, but they don't do amount to a whole lot at 3:00AM in a server room unless you truly know your stuff. My thoughts on the industry-Internet Security is going to continue to emerge as a hot field. I think having Firewall knowledge is very valuable. Having DBA skills will get you plenty of interviews. I wouldn't recommend getting your MBA if you plan on staying in IT. You are going to spend beaucoup bucks and the MBA will only help you get into a mangement type position, where your specilization will be wasted
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I'm in my 23rd year of IT.  I have found that the answer to this question depends on what type of company you want to work for.  If you are looking to join a Fortune-100 organization and be a team member of a large IT staff, being a specialist will help you.  Those staffs are very compartmentalized and cross-discipline knowledge isn't always seen as a benefit.

If you want to be a consultant, with a large consulting firm (which are in decline, by the way) then specialists also tend to show up a lot there, because you're expected to know as much as humanly possible about the specific piece of a project you've been assigned to.

If you want to be an independent consultant, or one that works with small companies, then being more of a generalist helps.
If you want to work in a small-to-mid sized company, then being a generalist helps a lot.  If you have ambitions to eventually move into IT management, being a generalist also helps, as long as you can prove the competencies expected of management in whatever organization you're with.

The downside to being a generalist, is that it is too easy to be considered overqualified for a position, because you have a broader scope of knowledge and experience than most hiring managers are looking for for most positions.  Having in-depth knowledge in multiple areas can tend to scare off potential employers because they want people to stick around, and they don't know how to encourage a good generalist to do that, no matter what the generalist says.  They don't consider the potential benefits of having a generalist on staff to use as a valuable resource.

When a good generalist can hook up with a forward-thinking organization that knows how to leverage the strengths of their people resources, then a lot of good things happen.

One of the toughest things about trying to be a good generalist is that it takes a LOT of your time to become a good one.  As the field continues to change and grow, you have to change and grow with it.  If you don't have that drive to know as much as you can about as much as you can, then you shouldn't think about being a generalist, because then you become a "Jack of all trades, master of none."  Nobody really wants that type of person as an employee or team member.
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by:howei
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really nice to have your opinions guys,

When I think about security specialization I feel inadequate to start with because I don't have programming knowledge e.g. I couldn't dissect or write a virus myself and looks to me that only that kind of guys could be real experts in security field?
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by:ShineOn
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Check into the security cert requirements (I think it's something like CSE).  You may not necessarily have to have a strong programming background.

I don't know personally, because I haven't checked into it myself.  I'm just educating myself "on the side" in Assembly language so I can better understand how to protect against crackers, but the programming aspect, IMHO, is if you want to be a developer of security products.  Being a security expert, IMHO, involves knowing what constitutes a vulnerability, being able to analyze and assess the strengths and weaknesses of a company's security processes and procedures, and recommend changes in policy, procedure, infrastructure, security-related tools, identity management, etc.

IT security involves so much more than IDS and firewalls that you have to be well-versed in the HR aspect of security, and must be able to successfully communicate risk vs reward of any and all aspects of providing a secured enviroment for a company's data capital.
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by:howei
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ShineOn:
You are most likely right. My approach my be on the perfectionist side a little…


Another reason I started to look at this career issue is salary.
Approaching 40, I am at 40K now and it looks to me that there would be no major changes (other than yearly cost of living increases) in my salary in coming 5-10 years (unless I change jobs...) So I started to wonder which “career strategy” I could take to get to more serious jump in my income. That is how I also started to think about an MBA. I feel now are my years to do something about it because later on I might just feel to old or unmotivated.
What do you think guys?
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by:ShineOn
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MBA can add a bit of cache' and maybe a few $$.  I think choosing a specialty that you will enjoy and be able to excel at would be better - unless your MBA can be in that field, which is cream on top...

At your point in your career, it may be more beneficial to get professional certification in the specialty area you want to pursue.

I am not a professional career counselor, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but that's my opinion.
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by:ViRoy
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heres my theory on generalists and specialists.

i learned more from jumping jobs when i was younger and meandering on the internet than in MCSE classes and school, i find learning a little here and a little there... eventually opens up your mind to so many things that they all seem correlated.

its very hard to get a deep understanding in general because theres nothing general about it.
technical is as technical does, read read read!
i learned batch and basic programming before i was 13... all from manuals!
with that spawned the realization of this is how you make a processor do *stuff*

the main thing that keeps me going, the way i know i will master things and what keeps me on top of my career.... is one thing ALWAYS leads to another.
i have never hit a dead end in research and because of that i often sound omnipotently senior just cause i am familiar in general with nearly everything... that dosent mean i know how to use and fix it, but im already past the 1st step! pretty soon ill be walking then running, just depends on my determination and ability to adapt.
from old to new, experimental to developmental, proposed and my own crazy ideas.

for instance, i LOVE to read on IBM's development website... you wouldnt believe the things they dream of and accomplish, such as teleportation... beam me up scotty, yea right like thats gonna happen huh? what if i told you IBM has successfully teleported atoms and is proposing using that technology in switches, no ****!
what relevence does that have now? nearly none, but if someone mentions it i will be ontop of that conversation learning as much as i can. or maybe 20 years from now my kids will show me something utilizing that technology and i will be able to name a few acronyms and say oh yea, thats been in development since i was your age and it utilizes the einstein-podolsky-rosen effect.

networking, hacking, cable wiring, eprom programming, physical dynamics and atmospheric science, even building construction are all related.

so this *generalist* image you have of yourself, looks more to me like the beginning of a specialist. my BEST advice would be, dont narrow your vision to 1 thing or even 1 group of things... take all aspect into consideration and ask as many questions as possible.

when you get fustrated and lost in the woods... just remember that fustration is your motivation roaring.
there are many more worse off behind you on a darker trail... and think of the light you could shine from someone early on the same path as you, to them YOU are the specialist, why? because you can answer a single question? no! because you know about many areas that all need to be taken into consideration to come to a final conclusion. and im sure you've noticed, that conclusion is nearly never a yes or no. (i usually come to the conclusion of yes AND no)

now im not going to be able to tell you which path to take and become the specialist you have envisioned.
you just need to see there's always a path.
--


now on a more personal note... i hate working, period (as opposed to the people that love working i guess)
i was a very stubborn kid and i took my own route, got into trouble and was sent away and so forth... never had college ambition. i just held onto what i had and loved, computers was the only thing i never ever got tired of. when i got my high school diploma and realized i would need a career.. its just then dawned on me that i know computers! didnt even cross my mind until then!

i heard a wise man once say, "those who are unaware, are unaware of being unaware"
that saying has stuck with me well, i think because of the enormous truth behind at and eases me to cope with other people in certain situations. but i had no idea i would ever work on computers... what started out as a home hobby became passion, which became a career, which became a gate to things i never dreamt of and i still feel like im on the way up for the first drop on that huge rollercoaster ride.

so instead of trying to mold yourself to a model you dont know what should really look like....
chose a path and walk, take time to look on both sides, maybe even the insides too... and then make a decision. you will come to a well thought out conclusion and better understanding of yourself.

oh and BTW - if you want to go security, look at the CISSP (www.isc2.org) - very well rounded, im halfway through ;)
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by:ShineOn
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" ... a wise man once say, "those who are unaware, are unaware of being unaware""

That is self-contradictory circular logic.  It is essentially a philosophical irony.  

Take the inverse.  "Those that are aware of being unaware, are aware."  

Philosophy that you can "hang your hat on" can be stated both ways and make some sense either way.

That's similar to the statement "only those that think they're crazy are sane."

It's a "Hmmmm...." statement, to be sure, but logically valid?  Not so certain...
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by:ViRoy
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you cant be aware of being unaware.
you can realize that at one time you were unaware... but you know now ya? so you cant be both past and present tense at the same time.
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by:ShineOn
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I prefer "The only true sign of stupidity is the inablility to admit your ignorance."
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by:ViRoy
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and that does not contradict.
if your looking at a math problem you cant solve, you simply dont know the formula... the answer... then here you would not be "aware of being unaware".. you would just not know the answer. you logically deduced that you cannot solve the problem.

if your in the woods and theres a monster stalking you... you have no idea what danger your in, did you intentionally put yourself in that danger?
like the movies.. "dont go in there scantily clad woman, hes gonna get you!" like she knew. she put herself in a situation she would otherwise would not.
another analogy... someone telling a joke, highly offends someone with it, however that person keeps it to themselves.... so now the joke teller has no idea of what position he has put himself in. could he figure it out? not without aide!

you would be doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

if you dont get it then please dont reply.
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by:ShineOn
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I guess I misread it.  Shame on me. Semantic logic is one of the things I play with for fun...
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