Being a specialist or generalist: A techie’s dilemma

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The decision to become a specialist in a particular technical area or to be a generalist with average level skill in many technical areas may be one of the most important decisions you make in your professional life, and this is why.

The decision to specialize in a specific area or be a generalist with a wide variety of average skills is not just a dilemma for techies. It’s also an issue for doctors, lawyers, software companies, training companies like mine, and in almost every other professional endeavor.

For individuals, this issue is this best explained in the following two statements:

• If I specialize in a specific area I’ll make more money when employed (or under contract), but it will be harder for me to find a job (or new contract) because my skill is specialized in a specific area.
• If I’m a generalist, it will be easier for me to get a job because I have a number of professional skills, but my pay will be less because I’m not an expert in any particular technology.

For companies, technologies and otherwise, the questions are different but in their essence, very similar.

• If we specialize our products in a specific market area, it will be easier to get work in that area because of our specialization, but it feels like we will be leaving money on the table by not actively marketing a wider range of products and services.
• If we offer a wide range of products and services it widens our potential marketing base, but the problem is that it will be harder to win deals because we will be competing with firms that specialize in a specific area.

In both of these cases, the issue is the same, specialization tends to bring increased fees, but at the cost of a smaller potential client base.

Before providing any specific advice, I would like to say that both strategies (specialist or generalist) can bring both wild success and potential failure. That said, below are the risks related to each strategy.

• Risks of specialization includes; specializing in an area that has a declining or nonexistent market and an extreme completion in that specialty, forcing a further level of specification.
• Risks of generalization includes; losing out on potential work to specialists who have a higher level of skill, and being forced to differentiate yourself on price, thus reducing your billing rate/salary.

What I have learned, both as a technologist and a business owner, is that while specialization does reduce the size of your potential market, it increases your potential opportunities because if people mentally associate you with a specific skill or service, they will call you when that specific product or service is needed. As a generalist, this mental association, and thus the lead, is much less likely to happen.

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