The IT Versatilist: Neither specialist nor generalist

The valued employee of the present and future: neither a specialist (one with a unique but narrow and deep skillset) or a generalist (knows a lot about a lot but not in much depth), the versatilist is what more and more employers are looking for.

A versatilist is someone defined by prior work and assignments. It is someone who has performed work in several areas, can apply experiences of the past into problem-solving today and tomorrow. Versatilists learn and understand the business units in their organization: how they work, their objectives and their customer needs and help align their work with organizational goals.

Versatile IT employees also know how to manage projects, from inception to completion. They focus on processes and deliverables, with a keen eye to the schedule and budget.

All this is good, but it has implications for IT traditions…

What does this mean for the future of the the specialist?

How does one become more versatile if locked in a specialist role?

Soft Skills are for Weenies?

A lot has been written on the need for techies to develop the softer skills required for a gentler, friendlier IT support persona. Those are fundamental skills required to bring IT out of the basement and into the conversations around business and strategy.

Yet it runs contrary to the personality type that is attracted to IT.

Let us remember that some folks in technical fields like IT pride themselves on NOT having social skills.¬† “I got into engineering precisely because I do not want to be evaluated on my social skills.”

Geek Pride: Soft Skills Are for Weenies

Touch√©. In fact, watch as high school students take career inventories as they plan for university programs. Many will be steered into IT if they are high in ‘figuring’ and low in ‘socializing.’

The article highlights the issue and many reader comments. It’s not a black and white. For talented developers, DBA’s, network engineers, system admins and support specialists, you want to carve out space for them to work heads down and focused. On the other hand, if their focus brings out Neanderthal behaviour that offends and undermines the service, the organization has a problem.

A few points to address this:

  1. Help everyone in your unit understand that communication, teamwork and responsiveness to customer needs are core values that will drive what and how you do your work. Individual and team performance will be evaluated accordingly.
  2. Create fundamental expectations of team and working performance. Do not perpetuate individual silos. Pair non-communicators with those who can.
  3. Teach technologists about fundamental communications required in their role. Then, like doctors in training, introduce bedside manners.

The bottom line is this: anti-social behavior is unacceptable in a service-oriented organization. Only a few can get away with it, mostly those with extraordinary skills. Yet those who continually offend and scoff at customer needs may not have the long-term job security they think.


The IT Role of the Future…cont.

You wrote that the role of IT leaders is changing and there is less emphasis on IT. Given the complexities of IT, how could a non-IT person possibly lead large technology groups, especially when technologists know so much more about the actual technologies they provide?

The challenge of the IT leader, indeed. They need to have a grasp of the technologies, but keep their focus on the overall priorities of the organization. Intimate knowledge of all the technologies is not their job. If they did, you may as well call them chief mechanic. That is not what most organizations need–or want–in the IT leader.

The IT leader role requires a voracious appetite for learning. It needs an understanding of the functions and purposes of technologies, along with business models and total cost of ownership. The role demands a keen comprehension of the industry, emerging trends and key business partners. It requires the ability to explain complex issues in lay terminology. The way to do that is to study and discuss the issues with others…your IT experts, vendors and colleagues, and through reading. And then align it all to the organization’s goals.

To your question, this is the role of IT managers and directors. Educate and keep your CIO informed. Don’t, however, expect your leader to get down in the weeds. They need to focus on engaging executives, managing change, improving business practices and continous learning about the various functions and priorities of the organization. Their role is to help you, the IT people, understand the goals of the organization. It then becomes incumbent upon IT to deliver value towards those goals.

Our job is not IT per se. It’s higher education.