To be or not to be? – Jack of all trades

jack_of_all_trades.jpgA few days back at the weekly mentoring session at work an interesting topic came up, To Specialize or not to specialize in the IT industry.

As a Microsoft partner, most products and solutions we sell is Microsoft based (CRM, MOSS, .Net etc) so to a degree as a company, we have already specialized. However, within this space, there’s a lot more to think about, for example, specializing in winforms, Web services, web apps or even specializing horizontal across these, for example, security, use of Application blocks such as policy injection, logging, enterprise search tools etc.

Towards the end of this, there was a vote, who would like to specialize and who wouldn’t. From recall, I think it was pretty close to 50/50 in each camp. It seemed that the idea of having dedicated people / group to call on in the time of need seemed very appealing, however, being a person known as an expert didn’t appeal to everyone .

A few quick things for consideration on this…

  • point.gifIt is always good to have help from people and leverage off others knowledge (everyone needs experts to climb on).
  • point.gif(Most) developers by nature want to learn and grow. When we get a chance to play with new technology, its like a little kid opening a up their Christmas present.
  • point.gifBeing given the title ‘Expert’ gives huge kudos amounts your work mates (including managers and PMs), which could help you land the next best project.
  • point.gifBeing an expert in old technology usually means that you end up supporting legacy systems and that the only way to get your hands on new toys is by leaving and finding a new job.
  • point.gifBeing the last expert in an old technology means you never get any work done as everyone else is asking you for help when they are digging into old systems.
  • point.gifWhen you feel you have reached as far as you can / want to, you would most likely want to dig into something different, therefore experts would be hard to keep.
  • point.gifWhen you are at the stage in life where you are happy to settle on stuff (maybe when you start having a family?) and sick of the would moving so darn fast, you might appreciate being the master of a technology no matter how old that technology is (Cobol anyone)?
  • point.gifThe time and investment required to be the first to discover, investigate and solve problems. This requires commitment from the company and also in many cases, the client. In most cases, Its not ideal to have tight deadlines and playing with new technology, you will only ever focus on the immediate goal and not the learning required to overcome a technology.
  • point.gifBeing an expert could mean the company is now dependent on you (pay rise anyone)?
  • point.gifBeing an expert could also mean the company forgets about you and loses visibility over all the things you do during a work day.

Anyway, a few thoughts…
I’m a keen advocate of the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none”, though the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of most” does sound more appropriate in IT. In IT, It really does help if you can provide business solutions independently. It also helps if you have a basic understanding of a wide range of technology. With this basic knowledge, Google becomes a much better friend and the time you spend solving a complex problem becomes shorter. With technologies such as .Net and WCF abstracting complexity, it’s too easy for people to know how to plug things together without actually knowing the details around the underlying technology so when problems occurs, they are lost for how to begin solving them. For me, i think its best to have a breath of skills and do whatever you are working on well, that way, you may become natural experts in areas that you have worked on and still have broad knowledge.

Credit: Image shamelessly stolen from http://www.pjsinnam.com  (PJ Udo C.J. Fischer – 1975)

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