Independents: Why It’s Important to Be a Generalist

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Being an independent means the freedom to work when and where you want. It means having untraditional hours and answering to no one. However, it also means not having a steady paycheck. While full-timers are enjoying their off hours, you’ve got to be out there busting your butt, networking, building up your skills and trying to land your next project. As independents strive to keep employed, some find that having general skills prove the most rewarding while others rely heavily on one specialization. In a two-part series, will look at both these positions and the importance of each.

Generalists, unlike specialists, aren’t tied down to one area. As an independent, this freedom can give generalists more opportunities to find work. Instead of only being able to apply for the security jobs or the data warehousing jobs, generalists can apply for a wide variety of positions, provided, of course, they have the required experienced. It’s because experience can take some time to build that Steve Lock, branch manager, Robert Half Technology—an IT staffing firm—said generalists are often the more-seasoned IT professionals. “The generalist is going to be someone who’s been around for longer,” Lock said. “They’re more mature in their career, or maybe they’re older or they have more business experience. It’s almost a natural progression.”

According to Lock, having a wide base of knowledge also serves as a safety net. Unlike specialists, generalists will be able to stay employed as different specialization rise and fall in popularity. Sometimes, specialists aren’t so lucky. “If you’re a specialist, and you have a particular tool experience or network that’s really popular today, and then five years go by and something else comes in, and all the sudden it’s obsolete, and you’re a specialist in that area, you might find it hard to find a job to keep up with the pay you’re used to,” Lock said. “Because when it’s really hot, you’re killing it. You’re a Peoplesoft engineer back when it was going like gangbusters, and you’re making 100 bucks an hour. And then all the sudden, it might not be as popular in some areas as it once was, and you’re making $50 an hour. And so with the popularity of that technology, as it goes up and down, so does your pay. That is a disadvantage. But some people are really good at timing that, and then that’s great.”

In addition to having more job security, folks with a wide base of knowledge and advanced experience are more likely to pull down the higher-level positions. “So if you’re a manager—if you’re in a position where you’re a project manager or an architect or a development manager, a CIO or CTO—being a generalist is very important because at that higher level, you really need to have that experience of different platforms and different specializations,” Lock said. “You need to know how they play one off one another and know which one might work better a given situation. So the advantage of being a generalist is that will give you opportunities at those higher levels or at a project management job.”

Although generalists tend not to favor one specialized technical area over another, Lock said independent generalists often find the most success when they stick to one specific industry. “If you’re going to be in an industry-specific environment where you really want to stay in telecom, or you want to stay in mortgage, because you love a particular industry, then I think being a generalist can help,” Lock said. “Companies say, ‘We really want someone who’s been in mortgage banking because they understand the business,’ and maybe they’re going to be setting up a database for them. And (the companies) don’t really care what the platform is. They don’t care if it’s Oracle or SQL server or open source. They don’t care. It’s just that they need that industry experience.”

However, from Lock’s point of view, regardless of industry, the independents that are easiest for him to employ are generalists who also have many areas of specialization. “Someone who’s been around, these are the most valuable to me, someone who’s been around 25 years,” Lock said. “They’ve seen it all. They live and breathe technology. And while they’re a generalist, they can get in and roll their sleeves up and do some pretty specific specialized tasks. In a weird way, they’re both. They’ve been around so much, they can do both those roles.”

That might not be good news for you newbies out there, but it can provide something to aspire to. Lock said becoming a generalist is a choice, but it also takes time. “As time goes on, it just becomes a question of, ‘do you want to stay hands on and be a technologist and be specialized in one thing? Or do you maybe want to go down a road that might lead to project management, which is a little less hands on, in which case being a generalist is going to appeal to you,” Lock said.

If you choose the latter, Lock suggests taking an open-minded and eager approach. “When people come to me and say they want to broaden their base, I tell them the best way to do that is to get in with an organization that has your skill set where you can become involved at any level with that technology,” Lock said. “So you’re doing your day job, and you can get exposure to the new stuff, and I literally say any way you can. So go get training, go get certification, go get classes. Go do all the stuff behind the scenes that will help you go the direction you want to go, and offer up your time to learn that new stuff. Be part of the team as sort of a coordinator for things or maybe a quality assurance type of a role. Maybe do testing if you’re a software engineer. Offer to do a different task in that area that’s maybe not quite at the level you’d like it to be, but you get exposure there, and that will allow you to get that on your resume and get experience.”

In addition to building your knowledge base, Lock suggests prospective generalists build their business acumen. “As a generalist, it’s most important to have a good sense of business acumen and knowledge of different environments,” he said. “That’s what (companies) are looking for. Maybe someone who’s been involved in return-on-investment write up, or where they compare different technologies and different specialized skills and they can compare one to another. So have at least some good understanding of presenting options to a client and maybe not taking a firm platform or rigid stance. Instead of saying, ‘Well, Oracle’s better than Microsoft because of this,’ it’s more getting them to understand, ‘Here’s a pro or one, here’s a pro of the other. Here’s a con of one, here’s a con of the other.’ Lay it out to the client in a way that adds value because you’ve seen it in different environments. As a generalist, it’s very important to be exposed to heterogeneous technology environments and have that knowledge and experience to add to the client. Because (companies) don’t have that. They’re just used to the way they do business, and they want to see what’s better, what’s out there and what’s available. A generalist is going to have to provide that to them.”

Check back next month for the second part of the series, “Why It’s Important to Be a Specialist.”

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