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What Color Is Your Matrix?

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.

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