At what point in your career should you leave being a jack-of-all-trades and acquire a specialty?

Pay Your Dues

At what point in your career should you leave being a jack-of-all-trades and acquire a specialty?

I’m an MCP working toward my MCSE (two exams left), with three years in the field. I was hired into the company I work for with little experience; my firm has allowed me to gain knowledge in a variety of areas. In a given day I could do anything—from rearranging a PC in a cubicle, to replacing a hardware component on a client PC, to setting up an NT server. This is the first job I’ve had in this field and I’m beginning to wonder if my job responsibilities aren’t spread a little thin. Is this the way most of us spend our days? Are there jobs that focus on a more specialized area in which you can become an “expert?” I feel like a “Jack of all trades but a master of none.” Is the certification I’m working so hard for being put to good use?

—Scott Russell, MCP
PC/Network Specialist
Jacksonville, Florida

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Scott, I’m afraid that I pretty much agree with everything Steve (a.k.a. “The Old Geezer”) says. However, there are a few areas I’d like to explore further.

It sounds like you’ve been exposed to many aspects of IT support over three years, which is a great thing. That broad knowledge and experience is going to be extremely useful for your future IT career, and isn’t something you can learn simply by reading a book or taking a class.

Completing your MCSE will be useful in complementing your practical experience with some background theory, but that alone is no longer the ticket to fame and fortune that it may have been in the recent past. Nowadays, employers pretty much expect that as a competent working professional you’ll be certified. Instead, they’re much more interested in what you’ve actually done with the technology and learned along the way. That is what makes you truly valuable.

Also, don’t forget that the certification exams cover the minimum acceptable level of skills for Microsoft to deem that you know the product. It doesn’t make anyone an expert. You’ve probably worked on projects in which you had to learn the hard way how products really work and what they do and don’t do. Often, that goes far beyond the level of coverage expected in the exams.

One last point: I detect a tone within your question that perhaps some of your current work assignments may be beneath you. I’m afraid that even if you were promoted tomorrow to a senior position, you’ll always encounter tasks that you might well consider beneath you, but that you must do for the sake of the business. You just have to grin and do them, then get back to more challenging work when you can. Also, don’t forget that you will need to demonstrate mastery of your current work assignments before you will be asked to handle anything more demanding.

Sometimes I wonder if the high pay in IT relative to other fields is because of the not-so-nice tasks we all have to do occasionally. To give you an example, a few years ago I was team lead for a third-level network support team. I had some smart people working for me, and the team was half permanent staff and half contractors. As you would expect, much of our time was spent fixing critical network problems (servers crashes and so forth). But from time to time, we were called upon to perform simple tasks that were insignificant technically but important politically—say, fixing a desktop problem for the client’s senior management. This ensured that the problem was fixed (since we were well over-qualified for those sorts of tasks, of course) and also that it was done quickly. We on the team just accepted this as part of the job. However, I hired a new contractor who considered himself a Windows NT/NetWare expert, and in response to an urgent client request, I needed him to travel to the client site and use Traveling Software’s LapLink to copy some files from one client PC to another. After some convincing, he grudgingly went. I wasn’t delighted with his attitude, but what surprised me was the anger among the rest of the team that someone considered himself above the rest of us. Not surprisingly, this person lasted only two weeks.

I’m not trying to compare you to that contractor, but I am warning you to be careful about your attitude. That can be as important an asset as any technical tool you’ll ever add to your toolbelt.

About the Author

Greg Neilson, MCSE+Internet, MCNE, PCLP, is a Contributing Editor for MCP Magazine and a Professional Development Manager for a large IT services firm in Australia. He’s the author of Lotus Domino Administration in a Nutshell (O’Reilly and Associates, ISBN 1565927176).

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