Specializing or Generalizing?

We humans have a limited amount of resources available for pretty much anything. Whether it’s money, time, energy, general give-a-darn, we don’t have infinite amounts of it. There is no limitless supply of money/time/energy/give-a-hoot waiting in the wings, available for anytime we need it.

So too does that apply to determining what to do with one’s IT career.

In the distant past, when technology was still new, and support was in its infancy, we IT pros had to generalize to survive. We were expected to know everything about everything — networks, operating systems, software, cabling, databases, security, programming. You name it, we were expected to know it. And what was the end result?


The problem is that we have limited time and ability to learn all there is to know about everything within the time constraints we’re given. In the analogy of the ice cube tray, our resources are illustrated by a pitcher of water (not a faucet). From that pitcher, we can choose two paths:

  1. Fill all the cube receptacles all at once and see what level they reach, or
  2. Fill each receptacle sequentially, knowing that there will be empty cells.

With #1, we ensure that every cell or receptacle or cup as at least some water. With #2, we ensure that we can fill as many as possible to the top, but we know that others at the end will remain empty.

This is the illustration of generalization (#1) vs. specialization (#2). So which is “better?”

That all depends on your own set of values. Personally, as a student of life, I love to know a bit about everything so that if a topic ever comes up in conversation, I can participate to some degree. I love science. I can discuss some literature, art, and music. I play a few instruments. I know quite a bit of history. I can teach someone the basic fundamentals of calculus using AD&D terminology.

But I’m far from an expert in any of those fields. This is because I filled my ice cube tray from that pitcher all at once, to try to get some water in at least every cell.

I know some brilliant musicians, but who are terrible at cooking. I know phenomenal artists who are awful at math. And of course, I know plenty of savant-like IT people in various specialties who are clearly deficient in other areas of life.

These are the people who’ve concentrated on filling one cell in the ice cube tray from the pitcher at a time, to make sure that they are using all the available resources to fill that one cell to the top before moving on to the next.

Now, obviously, there are pros and cons to both approaches. Neither is better than the other, because again, it all depends on what you value more. As an IT professional, generalization does make it a bit more difficult to land that prestigious job or even do some more focused job searching, while the specialist knows what he or she is targeting and what to get….but the opportunities are further and fewer in between.

The generalist can probably find more opportunities to submit applications, but yield fewer interviews or offers. The specialist may find very few application opportunities, but the ones they do land, interviews almost seem to happen right away. The generalist might have greater flexibility in moving from field to field while the specialist is stuck in a handful of areas of expertise.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches. Which you select depends on what you value more, and your tolerance for risk.

Using Analogies

Having been involved in technology pretty much my entire life, tech concepts come pretty easily to me. But I also understand that it’s not the case for everyone, regardless of age or exposure. For example, we may often wonder — especially from my generation — why younger folks seem to have difficulty with technology when they’ve grown up with more exposure than we have.

That can be countered simply by saying that we, of my generation (born in the ’70s), have grown up exposed to cars all of our lives….but we are not necessarily qualified to repair them.

Exposure doesn’t equate expertise.

This is one of the examples of analogies that I like to use to bridge gaps in understanding when it comes to technology. Not everyone I encounter in my role in IT is going to be up to speed on all aspects of tech (that’s why I exist). But framing technology into terms that mirror ubiquitous concepts, like cars or the medical profession, seems to help open up the listener’s mind to the possibilities in the conversation.

By framing technology into familiar concepts and terms, audiences can start to see that technology is not as intimidating or daunting as first feared; that, like the other familiar concept, it can be learned and understood one piece at a time. Similarly, even complex technological concepts can be broken down and more easily digested once the fundamentals are understood through the use of analogies.

Another parallel conversation regarding information technology can be the profession itself. Young professionals and students exploring careers in IT may not be aware of the range of choices and specialties that fall within the broad umbrella of IT. Thus, it can be tempting to ask “what’s the best way to break into IT?” or “what degrees/certifications do I need in order to become an IT professional?”

Unfortunately, a question like that is akin to asking “how do I become a medical professional?” without specifying what professional study in medicine or even a specialization. In medicine, one must choose a professional path (doctor? nurse? research scientist? EMT?) and specialization (trauma surgeon? cardiology? rheumatology? orthodontics? optometry?), and that in turn will determine the education, certification, and residency requirements in order to fulfill those goals. IT is no different — choose a path, choose a specialty, then determine the requirements to achieve that goal.

Despite its commonplace existence, IT is still in a way considered a nascent industry. Thus, understanding the underpinnings of “the job” is not nearly as commonplace as presumed. Using analogies to equate the aspects of information technology fosters that understanding and learning about our profession by those who are not as familiar with it, without taking on a haughty and arrogant attitude that seems unfortunately too commonplace within our peer group.

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