The IT Versatilist: Neither specialist nor generalist

I'm listening to Tom Friedman's book entitled The World is Flat. This is an excellent assessment of the recent history of information technology and its impact on the global economy. While I am moved to write about many aspects of this book, I simply recommend it to anyone who is looking at their career and how to remain viable.

Friedman cited some studies by the Gartner Group that refer to the valued employee of the present and future: neither a specialist (one with a unique but narrow and deep skillset) or a generalist (knows a lot about a lot but not in much depth), the versatilist is what employers are looking for.

A versatilist is someone defined by prior work and assignments. It is someone who has performed work in several areas, can apply experiences of the past into problem-solving today and tomorrow. Versatilists learn and understand the business units in their organization: how they work, their objectives and their customer needs…and help align their work with organizational goals.

How would you describe yourself? (rhetorical, but have some rhetoric with yourself)

7 thoughts on “The IT Versatilist: Neither specialist nor generalist

  1. You happened to leave out the biggest theme in Friedman's "The World is Flat," which is outsourcing. My job goals are no secret to those who know me. Eventually I want to attain the role of CIO for some big corporation. I plan on creating a bridge between IT folk and those who could care less about anything except the numbers at the end of the year. The question that inevitably follows therefore is "How can anybody not only survive in today's IT market, but also exceed such high expectations that have been set?" When Friedman talks about versatility, he is also suggesting a more Theory Z environment, like that of Google or EA Games. Not only should each individual be self sufficient with no need to go to others for help, but should also be 100% willing to work in groups with others and take credit as a group, not individually. This is the versatility that Friedman speaks of.
    So how do we apply that to today's situations, how about to Plymouth State University? Can any individual be a versatalist here in the IT department? I don't think so. Even if employees did want to branch out and become versatile in their field, this campus's policies and procedures not only discourage such thinking, but also limit any ability for an individual to do so. Somebody in database isn't going to be on the planning committee for the Learning Commons, and if they are it probably isn't going to because they are versatile in the knowledge of building plans, construction procedures, company integrations, and the various other things needed to create something like the learning commons. They'll be there to contribute on behalf of what their paid to know, databases. I'm not suggesting that our current model doesn't work for Plymouth State University or that they may not be looking to change the model in the future, however I am suggesting that until workers in the Systems group want to learn networking and those in networking want to learn databasing, and those in databasing want to learn how to be an administrative assistant, a Theory Z environment of the versatalist is near impossible. There is no incentive to be a versatalist either. Why learn the nitty gritty details of the packet shaper when my.plymouth needs improving, or when some user can't login?
    While the idea of a versatalist is intriguing and a wonderful prospect, in actuality the only way to achieve such a system is to start from the ground up, because transferring from a Theory X/Y environment to a theory Z is tedious/impossible at best. Finally, Friedman does offer an answer to how this can be done. It is in the first line of this comment, and that is outsourcing. Not that I am suggesting that it be done here, but a company that wants to do well in the future, can make a good start by starting from the ground up and outsourcing to India. There is no cutting around the facts, which are that they will work twice as hard for half the money. What do continents matter with Web 2.0? The internet is the internet isn't it? The e-mail you send to the person in the next cubicle, takes just as much time to go around the world. Streamed Video-conferencing, Online Interwebs, the tools to fully utilize workers on other continents are already here, and ready to be used. So how with all of this can we expect our employees to be versatile? In America the harder we work, the more we feel we should be paid. Nobody is going to work hard to learn everybody else's job, and then ask for their pay to be cut in half!
    Unfortunately, I believe Friedman is right in thinking that the U.S. needs to catch up with the rest of the world, but has almost no chance of doing so. Why change when what you have works? Why fix what isn't broken? Why run when you can walk? These are all national issues that we as Americans use as excuses from doing more work than is required, and in the end we will fall because of it.

  2. Liam,

    You make some excellent points. And as you said, this book is about far more than my post implies. In fact, every time I read a section, I want to share the ideas and perspectives with colleagues.

    Can an ITS person be a versatilist? Maybe, but as you state, it is difficult because we are forced into specializations. Network, sysadmin, MIS, DBA, store, telecom, support, library...these things require a degree of specialization. Yet over time, the strength of our organization lies in our ability to transcend those organizationally-imposed boundaries and think more broadly about the business we are in. Step one, in any of those specialty fields, is to pull your head up once in a while and connect with users. What are their needs, how are they changing? What new technologies are on the horizon? How can you adapt what you are doing to posit ideas that will help them?

    Additionally, when you look at your career, it is important not to get too locked in to any one field. As the Gartner report implies, if you know one thing very well, very deeply, and new technology evolves that suddenly makes that skill a commodity, you're vulnerable. On the other hand, if you watch what is happening in your industry and pay attention to emerging trends, you can adapt your skills and catch the next wave. You would bolster your value by taking those ideas to your users and colleagues.

    The versatilist takes the best of both specialists and generalists. One cannot get by without one or more areas of true expertise. Conversely, an over-reliance on one technical specialty without pulling your head up once in a while can be very dangerous.

    Most importantly, a versatilist builds upon career experiences. It is a continuum that leads to adding value to your organization. You have to remain hungry for this throughout your career, not just in the early stages. You have to commit to continuous career learning.

    Your final comment, about the US being lax when we are seemingly successful, is most poignant. While I, too, am disturbed by this trend, the fact that we have students like you who know and recognize this now is encouraging. You, my friend, will go far.

  3. June 13, 2006

    Dear Dwight,

    Versatilists? We had better be.

    At 66, I'm embarking on a new career--it is wild.

    C. Brown

  4. Liam, I think you underestimate how many versatilists we already have in our environment. I'm going to use myself as an example, but I believe as Dr.Brown stated we'd all better be (and I think many of are). On campus alone, I have worked for facility services in the map room. As part of this I learned a great deal about campus planning and how HVAC and other types of facility operations run. I worked at the shop as a student with Mike and Tom. There I acquired fairly in depth knowledge of hardware both from a quality standpoint and all the way down to the details of how it all goes together. I worked at the help desk where as you know the issues that come in are continually versatile. While there I got the opportunity to manage student employees, this involved hiring, firing, and training (yes the student managers used to do all those things). I left PSU and worked in internet advertising at a small dot com company. There I was lead programmer of a product, DBA, sys admin, help desk, and occasionally sales man all wrapped in one.

    I've come back to PSU, now I administer 4 or 5 applications, program in a few different languages and talk constantly with networking, systems, and DBAs to help come up with forward looking solutions. I've helped Ken identify emerging technologies and we've continued to add services like blogging, luminis, identity management, SSO, etc.

    I can write code in at least 6 different languages. I've used at least 5 different RDBMSs. I've installed and supported 5 operating systems in production large scale environments. This is just me professionally.

    Looking personally, I can rebuild engines and do about anything you'd want to on a car. I've been involved with building 3+ houses, so I'm comfortable with rough carpentry and simple domestic architecture. I blog about all kinds of things.

    This is merely my story, but as I look around ITS, I see a lot of talented people who can all paint similar portraits. Our organization has been and will continue to be successful because we build a team environment where many people are familiar with others primary jobs and can help out when needed. Ours is the versatilist organization.

    If you have doubts about that Liam, I'd encourage you to shadow one of us just to see how diverse our days can be.

  5. I tend to lean towards Zach's point-of-view, but can see Liam's point (that'll come later). I have always tended to be more of a generalist than a specialist in almost every aspect of my professional life (I think everyone knows how to do many things in life (hobbies, etc. -- I think this is much more of a career issue). From the 8th grade yearbook staff to my summer jobs at the drive-in all the way until now, I have always sought to learn something new and different while not abandoning my earlier skills.

    My education was no different. Having attained a degree in Meteorology and looking for a second in that field, I was turned onto this thing called the Internet (this was '95), and thrust myself into the various programming and administration tasks therein. I got my degree, but since have always been regarded more as a programmer than an Atmospheric Scientist. I now administer a Learning Management System -- having only learned that new task. Guess what? I'll likely be learning how to administer two completely different applications in the next 4 months...

    OK. Fast forward. I think our department struggles with this idea of a versatilist. Without claiming any superiority, I do feel that I am one. I never looked at the value of being a versatilist, it (fortunately) has been inline with what I enjoy and how I operate.

    However, ours is the type of organization where someone HAS to be a specialist at something (some one has to answer the question/solve the problem). Agree or not, many companies, while they understand the value of a versatilist, they will often hire the specialist out of the desire for instant gratification.

    I would bet that versatilists applying for a specific job often 'get the interview', but are not as likely to get the job. You might hear things like. 'You were great, and you would've been a great fit, but this person just had the specific experience we needed now.' If versatilists are truly valued as Gartner and Friedman suggest, it is now the responsibility of employers to make this philosophical change.

    However, if that is the case, what would an organization of versatilists to look like?

  6. Liam, Dan and Zach make great points. Their story is certainly not unique. In the twenty years that I have been here, I 've seen a significant amont of change, but throughout, staff have been allowed and encouraged to adopt and innovate. The institution, as an higher education institution, has its' share of compartmentalization in that Faculty have their own governance structure which is separate from OS and PATs, but there are many committees, that cut across these divisions that afford an individual to develop a deeper understanding the organization that Freidmans addresses. I would even argue these committees at PSU are the most effective and influential. Take for instance the Online Learning committee which was made up of faculty and staff. They made significant progress in formalizing our initial distance education policy. An effort, which for many institutions, has been a contentious topic. By having the right mix of representation, challenges were identified and solutions were adopted.

    Dan does make a very good point, that when it comes down to a specific job position, one does have to match very closely the position description, but I would add that the versatilist is in the best position to shap the presentation of his or her background to match a broader range of positions and thereby increase their marketability over the long run.

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