Can We Still Afford to Specialize?

Creative Commons Image by Lord James


Last week I met a new (to the company I was visiting) solutions architect. I was very pleased when I asked about his specialization and he didn’t understand what I meant. There was a time when most of us could specialize. Now, most of us need to generalize. When seeking a job, most hiring managers are looking for specific and deeper skills to satisfy their need. But they are also looking for a breadth of skills the company will benefit from overall as they invests in the new hire.

When I first started my IT career, mainframes ruled the earth. I could specialize on a platform, read core dumps, and know a genre of IO device or even application. I knew that if I invested time in learning something, it would be around for at least 10 years. And if I was in banking or other risk-adverse industries, I could retire with my unique specialized knowledge.

As the industry shifted from mainframe to distributed computing, and then to service orientation, and finally to cloud-delivered services, we have lost the luxury of having time to become an expert and grow deep knowledge. Being that person would be like being a TV repairperson or a toaster. Those are commodities, and compute capabilities are as well. It hit me when I had a chat with a brilliant architect who works for Goldman Sachs. He said that his leadership knows the risk of IT solutions and time to solution is critical. As a consultant, the answer has shifted from 6 months, $500,000 to 9 weeks, pay as you go.   

I used to ask architects if they thought architects should be able to code. In most cases the answer would be based on how tactical or strategic the architect was. For the tactical ones who worked on solutions, they would say “yes” so they could determine how long it would take the developer team to deliver features, so they could be credible with the teams. For the more strategic architects I would get a “no”. They would suggest the architect should have the depth in their past but if they spent the time to stay current, they would do the company a disservice by not being able to maintain the breadth needed to set the strategy. Now, asking that question would date me and people would just come up and pat me on the back and shake their head.

So where is the sweet spot? You must know something early in your career to a depth level. This allows you to truly know how things work. From there you can use that knowledge as a base to transfer and accelerate learning in other areas, just never again to the depth you were allowed before. Unless it is a hobby. Enjoy yourself!     

Andy Ruth 
SEI Mentor
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