The Strategic Choice in Your IT Career: Deep or Wide?

Steve Brunker, CIO, LSI Industries
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Steve Brunker, CIO, LSI Industries

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time talking about the business of IT with young professionals that are at the start of their careers. Through those conversations, I’ve become aware of some characteristics of our industry that are now forcing a strategic career decision much earlier now than even in the recent past. That decision is whether to become a skilled subject matter expert (SME) or more of an IT generalist.

As recently as five or ten years ago, a person could successfully transition between being an SME and a generalist or vice-versa. I have colleagues that began as generalists, managing a range of IT products or services, then later became fascinated with a particular technology and elected to make it their focus. Conversely, I also know people that went the other direction, taking their initial depth of knowledge in a particular area and applying similar methodologies to a wide range of business situations.

Two key characteristics have evolved over time that serve to make this change much more difficult today–and therefore increase in importance the need to make a good personal choice earlier. The first of these is in how we define the “subject” part of being an SME.

  ​Making such a change necessitates a full commitment, which often entails taking steps back towards an entry level position 

The sophistication of IT has grown enormously in recent years. It was not uncommon for a person to choose to be an SME in what now seems like an incredibly broad area such as “storage” or “networking.” The categories were broad because the overall complexity was lower. It was very possible to be an expert across the entire breadth of these basic building blocks of IT.

The second characteristic is the increasing pace of technological change. Although we’ve always perceived that technology evolves at a breakneck pace, it was clearly changing more slowly in the past.  This allowed more opportunity for people to adjust to and evaluate new concepts. There was time to learn about the new entrants, even as we were applying our existing expertise.

The evolution of these two characteristics combines with interesting effect. As the “subject” areas have grown narrower, they necessarily afford people less breadth of experience and expose them to fewer methods that they may later be able to apply elsewhere. This makes it more difficult for the SME to successfully make the transition to a generalist. Their skills are too finely focused.

Meanwhile, the generalists are faced with the challenge of finding sufficient time and support to become an expert while they continue with their generalist responsibilities. The pace of change is now fast enough that the needed investment of time and money cannot be spread over long periods of time. Making such a change therefore necessitates a full commitment, which often entails taking steps back towards an entry level position. Anything less, and the skill will be mastered just as the technology fades.

The result of these effects is that the risk associated with making the SME/generalist choice is much higher today since a poor choice will consume time and money and yield a poor return. While the investment is not a total loss, it can certainly put a career at serious disadvantage timing-wise.  Furthermore, recovering from a poor choice to change direction requires an additional investment of time and money, worsening the return.

So it is indeed more important now than ever for an aspiring IT professional to have in mind their committed direction: Deep (SME) or Wide (generalist). Both paths offer lucrative, challenging and rewarding experiences, but are different indeed. Both require a commitment to continuous learning; that is inescapable in the IT field.

The SME’s challenge will be to not only stay proficient in their chosen technology but also keep a keen, objective lookout for threats. Threats can take the form of new, replacement technologies or complete technological disruptions. The danger to the SME is that their chosen expertise could become obsolete or irrelevant before they’ve prepared their next expertise. With today’s pace of change, this is an ever-present risk. Those choosing the SME path must budget some of their continuous learning time to evaluating, exploring and eventually becoming proficient at their next expertise.

The challenge for the generalist is to make choices of which technologies in the vast array of possibilities warrant their attention to develop a basic understanding. Many, many technologies are just noise and are not applicable to the business needs the IT generalist serves. Therefore, developing a network of confidants that can help filter out that noise is essential. Establishing a set of reliable SMEs that can be consulted about the relevant technologies is the way to multiply their effectiveness. In their case, it’s less important to know the details of various technologies, but essential to know the people that do.

The strategic importance of selecting one of these paths is not new. What is new–and what I expect will continue–is the level of risk that IT professionals face if they fail to adequately consider which path better matches their aspirations and abilities. What is not new is the profound satisfaction that making the right personal choice will give someone as they advance in their career.

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