Specialization: Risks & Rewards

So you are getting into technology.  Obviously if you weren't sharp enough for the challenges of myriad disciplines, software, and hardware you'd be off getting a job for a lesser mind and reading some other blog.  However your strengths set up a question which has ramifications for your career: do you focus on a specific skill/technology or instead stay current in as many facets as possible?  Geekademy has some ideas.

Here's a fact: employers like people who produce something of value (especially so if you are self-employed).  Rewarding as it is to be a well-rounded generalist with your friends, knowing a lot about something specific trumps all when money is on the line.  You probably know someone who loves cars; he reads all the magazines, talks about them all the time, and generally knows a lot about things automotive.  But when it comes time to pay someone to fix your car, you seek a mechanic.  He may not know the latest speculation on Tata's influence on Jaguar's future styling but he will know how to ascertain and fix your Jetta's engine.  That specificity of skill is quantifiable and valuable.

Early in your career you likely have a voracious mind for technology - you read the blogs, you are a gamer, you dabble in development.  Keep it up, but know that for immediate impact at a company - or for trying to get into one - target a single proficiency.  It shouldn't take longer than six months to a year to graduate from a hack to a local expert from inside a company or at home.  You will promptly separate yourself from 90% of your peers.  You will not believe how effective it is when in an interview or on a project to be able to state, "I don't know X or Y well, but I can do Z right now."

You may fear a job description which lists nine hard-core "required" skill sets, but understand that the hiring req is sponsored by someone who wants something tangible, e.g. his department is getting new servers and needs them configured and maintained, he just lost his one good email admin, whatever.  Can you do that critical task?  Yes?  Then you are an instant candidate to the hiring manager.  The other stuff is simply nice-to-have.

Great.  You have found yourself a niche and being paid for it.  Here comes the introspection: do you like it enough to do it for a while?  Do you think it has a future?  Critical is recognizing when you are at a dead-end.  My first real tech job found me taking on a boring but crucial aspect of the company's billing software.  I became a local expert.  Then a senior colleague emphasized that your resume should always be written for your next desired job.  I thought of what I was doing and concluded my new-found expertise had zero portability or extensibility.  I remained useful at that job for the time being, but how might one avoid staying in a proprietary pigeonhole?

About the same time a friend of mine quit a high paying job doing back-end systems for the banking industry to take an entry-level job in visual effects for less than half his salary.  To succeed he knew that simply "knowing" computers wasn't enough - unlike banking, everyone in VFX knows computers.  To re-establish a career he needed to become valuable in a hurry.  He took a look at the production pipeline and saw that rendering - the point at which all the bytes become a final image - is not the sexiest aspect but is core to the business.  So he eschewed the temptation to hang with the after-hours gamers or immediately take on the glamorous but longer, steep ramp to the digital artist positions.  He instead stayed late to take advantage of the company's books, tutorials, and available CPUs (side note: educational resources are a huge unused perk at most companies).

Within a few months he was extremely fluent in rendering software and hardware and his value was obvious to several teams.  From then on he could get a job at any company in the industry.  Also, now armed with a viable skill, expanding into other aspects of visual effects became low-risk/high-reward moves knowing he had a solid fallback.  Within a few years of more hard work and well-applied smarts he was already making 50% more than his old banking industry gig.  His acumen across a number of disciplines had grown to be useful to new hires and he was enjoying his job as only you can when you create the opportunities yourself.

As you'll find - if you don't already - is technologies change but core business needs don't.  Start off focused on how to help your project or firm right now with a discrete skill.  As you outgrow that niche and gain perspective on the difference between core and transient technologies your experience itself can become of value.  You'll then have the liberty to pursue ever-greater expertise in a single realm, or move toward working at a higher level, being an architect who draws on numerous disciplines.  You can then follow and learn the technology d'jour and you can do it risk-free.

1 comment:

  1. Very Interesting article, though the Tata/Jaguar link threw me a bit in its obscurity until I read it.

    Regarding quickly becoming an expert, I learned this lesson early on at technical job as well.

    Once during a slow period, I dusted off a book from the shelves on UNIX shell-scripting (bash & tcsh) and plowed through it cover to cover in a week or two. Shortly afterward I was whipping up useful scripts every other day.

    Soon, the rest of the so-called technical staff started treating me as if I were a peer of Einstein. Huh? I realized, it only takes the reading of a book or two in a specific area to leapfrog the capabilities of most others, leaving them in awe.

    This comment however, shouldn't be taken as to discourage the reading of the third or fourth book. ;)