Archive for June, 2012

What Color Is Your Matrix?

June 20, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently had a conversation with a prospective student for the IS continuing studies program where I am involved.  The student is in her twenties, has a two-year degree in “communications” and is working as a marketing assistant for a local PR firm.  As marketing assistants in small companies often do, she wears many hats and gets involved in activities way beyond her defined responsibilities and has become the de facto “computer expert” in the office.  She is thinking about pursuing a degree in the information technology field but wants to understand what type of jobs there are and what she should aim for.

Because of my proximity to IS, both in my “day job” and in my teaching, I get variations on these types of questions fairly regularly.  Over time, I’ve found that the questions I ask address two basic themes:  1.) Are you a generalist or a specialist? and 2.) Do you have a technical or a functional aptitude?

This model fits neatly into a 2×2 matrix.  I like to use 2×2 matrices for decision analysis because they are simple, clear and intuitive.  (I can’t prove it, but I like to think that 95% of the world’s decisions can be mapped with a 2×2 matrix.)

Specialist vs Generalist
These two attributes are opposite but complementary.   IS teams need both types of people to operate and thrive.  A few probing questions and a little introspection will usually reveal a tendency toward one or the other.  What are your preferences?  Where do your talents lie? 

Do you like to deep-drill a subject, exhaustively researching it until you understand every detail?  Do you strive to be, and enjoy being, “The Expert”?  You’re probably a Specialist.

Or do you get bored with the details, yet get energized in taking on new tasks?  Do you tend to appreciate the forest more than the trees?  In other words, would you rather frame and hang the finished jigsaw puzzle rather than plow through and connect the individual pieces?  If so, you lean towards Generalist.

There are long-term career considerations with this question as well.  As a specialist in IT, your utility to an employer is a double-edged sword.  You will be in high demand (with comparatively high salaries) when your technology is hot.  However, you will need to constantly gauge the market and retool appropriately when your technology is out of vogue or risk being pigeon-holed and limited in your career choices.  An IT generalist may not experience the high demand of a hot specialist, but may find it easier to remain in stable employment through lateral movement.

Technical vs. Functional
Like Specialists and Generalists, both Technical and Functional people are needed in IS organizations.  A classic technical/functional duo we are all familiar with is the two Steves of Apple fame.  Wozniak was the technical guru to Jobs’ functional genius.

Do you LOVE technology?  Are you enamored of it?  Do you see an app, a website or a piece of hardware and want to know “how did they do that?”  Then Wozniak is your guy.  Or are you more concerned with the results—the information that can be gleaned or the practical applicability of the system in addressing a real-world need?  Then you are in the Jobs camp.

 The intersection of these two dimensions defines specific disciplines within the IT career landscape.  I’ve listed a few examples in the matrix above.  While I don’t like putting people in boxes and limiting their choices, I do find that this type of guidance does help budding IT professionals determine a best-fit path for their careers.  In the case of my prospective student mentioned above, we determined that she is a “functional-generalist” and that technology-related training might be a future career option for her.

Another Opinion
For another take on the vertical / horizontal question, I came across this blog at Harvard Business Review that makes the case for the value of Generalists over Specialists.  As a generalist myself, I am a bit biased, but the key takeaway from the article is that the world—and IT in particular—is more connected than ever, and to effectively apply technology solutions to human problems requires a broader set of knowledge salted with an enthusiasm for flexibility.  Note the key word “apply”—an expert cabinet maker still needs a good saw.

Categories: IT

The pIT and the Pendulum

June 5, 2012 Leave a comment

We’ve all heard or said the expression one time or another at work: “…blah blah blah and the pendulum swings the other way” or something to that effect.  It’s usually said after management does a 180 and reverses a decision it made the last time we said it.

A pendulum is an apt metaphor for trends in management decision-making, particularly in IT.  More often than not, the swing in IT is between the two opposing philosphies of centralization and distribution.  Centralized solutions are by nature standardized and controlled.  Distributed solutions tend to be customized and organic.  The benefits of a centralized approach are efficiency, cost effectiveness and manageability, while the cost is often an unwieldy bureaucracy that impedes agility.  Conversely, a distributed approach produces a leaner solution that is quick and responsive but usually at a higher cost with more risk.  I’ve seen this tug-of-war manifest itself in the following examples.

IT Alignment (Centralized: Functional, Distributed: Business)
Where does IT belong on the org chart?  Back in the day, IT was kept at arms-length by the business and IT responded in kind.  Over time, computers emerged as valuable tools for not only counting beans but also creating, selling and analyzing them.  Business invited IT to the table and even into the boardroom.  Now the question about whether IT should be functionally aligned or integrated with the business units is a proxy for the real debate about the competing forces of efficiency and agility.

IT Resourcing (Centralized: Hire, Distributed: Outsource)
Is skilled technical labor a commodity or a strategic asset?  The debate continues.  Is IT at the point where the bulk of its practitioners are interchangeable parts that can be outsourced to the lowest bidder?  What does a company lose when that happens?  Is IT expertise a strategic asset?  Or is the company better served by specialized vendors who can achieve economies of scale through a service architecture?  And since all I am doing here is asking and not answering questions, how many times have you seen this pendulum swing over the course of your career?

Application Architecture (Centralized: Thin Client, Distributed: Thick Client)
In the beginning we had no choice.  An organization had a single, very big, computer.  Applications were written for it and users were happy (in the same way your grandparents were happy to sip shoe-leather soup during The Great Depression).  Then, those long-haired kids from California invented computers that could be used by anybody (well, almost anybody), and workplaces became an archipelago of distributed applications that didn’t talk to each other.  Networks and shared disk space solved that issue, bringing a hybrid fix to the distributed mess.  And then the ultimate thin client architecture emerged—the Web.  Were PCs even needed anymore?  Now the battle has moved to mobile and the debate has resumed.  Native apps or mobile web?

Application Services (Centralized: Managed Hosting, Distributed: Local Hosting)
Here’s a simple question:  Which is more important to your organization, the ability to customize your applications and integrate your data freely or the elimination of the cost and overhead of maintaining an infrastructure that is not part of your core business?  It’s a classic centralized vs. dispersed conundrum, and if you think the argument has been settled, don’t turn your back on the pendulum that just passed you by. 

Standardization (Centralized: Standards, Distributed: Guidelines)
Standards are undoubtedly a good thing, but as Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.  The key word is “foolish”, of course.  Standards must make sense and be rooted in reality, otherwise they will be ignored at best or adhered to at worst—at worst, because the end result will be efficient solutions that no one wants.  As long as there are software makers and software users, this tension will exist, and organizations will be dodging the swinging pendulum.

The forces of centralization and dispersion are natural to humans operating in groups of two or more, and the greater the forces the longer and more dizzying the pendulum swing.  Perhaps the way to avoid this trauma is to increase the force of gravity by exerting more downward force in the center.  (A yo-yo weighed down by gravity doesn’t swing very much.)  Compromise—a hybrid solution—may be the best approach.  In other words, let the things that require agility be dispersed and things that require stability be centralized.  Then, the challenge will be to figure out where the boundaries lie and how the two forces can coordinate their efforts. 

Piece of cake, right?

Categories: IT