Independents: Why It’s Important to be a Specialist

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As an independent, it’s extremely important to know how to market yourself, what the latest technologies are and what areas are most likely to yield job opportunities. As independents strive to stay 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. (Read the first part of the series, “Why It’s Important to be a Generalist,” here.)

According to Steve Lock, branch manager of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology, unlike generalists, specialists can get into the field and find success at a young age. “Most of the time, (specialists are) early in their career as consultants,” Lock said. “So maybe they came out of college, whether they have a degree or not, maybe they’ve been in the field one, two, three or four years, then they say, ‘OK I’m going to go be a consultant.’ At that point they probably are a specialist. They probably have done one thing. In terms of a software engineer, they’re used to one toolset. Or maybe they’re a network person, and they’ve only had a few years of one kind of network. So that person’s a specialist.”

Lock said often those specialists are the easiest to employ. “When my phone rings and my client says, ‘Steve, I’m doing a migration, and I have to have someone with a particular skill set. I need a Microsoft Active Directory Exchange migration person,’ a generalist is not going to get that job nine times out of 10. When a company has a need, most of the time they have blinders on. They have it in their head what they need. In their head, they’re thinking specialist. They don’t have the skill set in house, which is why they need an independent.”

Lock said the nature of specialized areas lends itself well to independent work. For the most part, companies don’t have full-time IT professionals on staff that specialize in one area. This is why they need to hire an independent. As a result, most of the contractor opportunities that come across Lock’s desk are for specialists. “Why do they need somebody? Why don’t they have someone on there on staff full time who can do this job? Well, because it’s a specialized skill set,” he said. “It’s something they don’t currently employ. They need somebody who has this skill set. It almost defaults to a specialist in that moment.”

Lock said when companies look for specialists, they usually want someone who already has recent work experience in a particular area. “When a client wants a job done, most of the time they want someone who’s just finished a job just like that or who’s been doing it for the past two years,” Lock said. “And I see it all the time. I’ll send a resume or background of a person to a client, and I’ll say, ‘Listen, they’re a software engineer. They’ve been around multiple environments. They can do this, trust me.’ And that’s my job, to say, ‘Trust me, I know this person. He or she can do this job.’ And the minute (the company) sees that resume, if it isn’t screaming the skill set they want, there’s pushback.”

Like generalists, specialists need to have good business acumen to be successful as an independent, Lock said. In the old days, IT contractors would sit in the back room doing coding or network engineering, and they wouldn’t have much contact with the rest of the staff. However, Lock said this isn’t the case anymore. “Companies are spending more and more money on information technology, and they expect those people to be involved in the business,” he said. “That business acumen of written communication, oral communication, professionalism and really adding value to the business that you’re in is crucial. Whether it’s a company that builds software that they’re going to sell or whether it’s a company that simply has IT to handle, it’s internal business stuff, and you’ve got to know what the value is that you’re adding to the organization and be a part of it. It’s people like that, they come across that way and they communicate that way—they’re the ones that get the job. It’s those people that have that as a major part of their philosophy. And whether they choose to be a generalist or a specialist, you combine those, and you’re good to go.”

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