SmartAdvice: IT Generalist Background Gives An Edge - InformationWeek
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SmartAdvice: IT Generalist Background Gives An Edge

Those all-around skills you've acquired in a small shop will serve you better than you realize, The Advisory Council says. And, look at middleware when you do a readiness assessment, and reassess infrastructure software before looking at other infrastructure projects.

Editor's Note: Welcome to SmartAdvice, a weekly column by The Advisory Council (TAC), an advisory service firm. The feature answers three questions of core interest to you, ranging from career advice to enterprise strategies to how to deal with vendors. Submit questions directly to

Topic A: As IT manager at a small company I have to be a hands-on generalist, but I see the whole IT industry getting away from me. What's the best course of action for a guy like me?

Our advice: Do not despair; you aren't alone. Your experience is typical of the IT staff in many small and midsized companies. You're probably feeling both overwhelmed by the volume of work, and under-appreciated by management. If you do your job correctly, you're essentially invisible, yet when something goes wrong, as it inevitably does, you're the first to be blamed.

I spent more than 10 years of my career working as the senior (read only) IT person in a number of small and midsized companies. There was never enough time to stay current, never enough budget for conferences or education, and I, too, felt that I wasn't working at the cutting edge of IT. I was pleasantly surprised when I later went to work for a larger company. All those years of being the ultimate generalist meant that I had a far better understanding of how to build IT infrastructures than my peers who had spent their careers focused on only one or two specialized areas. As an IT generalist, what you bring to the table when looking at career and growth opportunities is a strong understanding of how all the systems, networks, and applications integrate to form a company IT infrastructure.

Related Links

Advanced Computing Systems Association

System Administrator Special Technical Group

So many companies are looking for specialists that you might feel tempted to take that career path. It's true that in today's job market, many companies feel that they can hire the specific skills du jour. That's very shortsighted. It's far easier to cut skills from a resum than it is to cover gaps. As IT specialists, too many people fall into the trap of not seeing the big picture. When a particular technology becomes obsolete (and it will), those people have more difficulty switching and building new skills. Ask anyone who specialized in LISP programming about his or her future employment prospects.

At this point in my career, there are few applications or systems that I can't learn in under a week. I can quickly assess a company's network infrastructure to determine how to improve it. Those invaluable skills came from the years of being an IT generalist for those smaller companies. Taking the following steps will help you remain current and extend your IT management skills:

  • Read the IT trade magazines and take advantage of any free local vendor seminars to stay current on technology.

  • Go to as many of the local IT conferences as you can talk your manager into. They're relatively cheap and you'll be able to share with your peers.

  • Build project-management skills. Not only will this help you in your current position, it will also give you more career options.

  • Learn more about people management. This will open up opportunities in companies with larger IT departments.

Fortunately, by being the only IT guy in town, you're exposed to far more interesting and varied projects than you would be if you spent your entire career in a larger company. As long as you focus on maintaining your technical edge while building your project and people-management skills, you'll ultimately remain highly employable and challenged by your work.

--Beth Cohen

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