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To Specialize or Not to Specialize: that is the $132,000 Question

By Rodney Landrum,

In whichever way you would like your IT career to progress, you end up having to learn, continuously. I got into a career with databases just because I found myself in the perfect spot to learn as much as I could about everything SQL.

Like many of my colleagues, I started my career in IT as a computer operator on a mainframe and worked my way up to a Help Desk position. From there I became the general network/server admin, with only a passing fancy for SQL Server. It was not until several years later that I realized my focus was narrowing in on SQL Server and that I knew enough to take on a role as part time data analyst and part time DBA.

More years passed and I snagged a job as a fulltime DBA. I confess, I was at first surprised it was even possible to find a position that allowed you to spend all of your time with SQL Server technologies. As a bonus, it turned out to be a time when the technology paths for SQL Server were a boomtown. OLAP was fresh out, DTS was in full swing, and there was talk about some new reporting services thing on the horizon.

My help desk days had taught me the need to think on my feet, and learn as much as I could about everything, quickly. The habit stuck and over the years, I had amassed good working knowledge in areas ranging from UNIX to network protocols to data analysis, and now the SQL Server database engine.

Then something interesting started to happen. The field of work related to SQL Server itself became so large that it was possible to make a choice. I could continue as a generalist, or I could specialize. People were becoming Business Intelligence experts all around me and doing very well at it. I had not focused enough on BI to be an expert. People in my company were coming to me looking for BI solutions and while I knew enough about the technologies in general, like Power Pivot, SharePoint and Analysis Services, I began to sink at the realization that there was a lot to know; a whole other career path even.

As the BI-osphere grew, even narrower specialization became possible. A performance tuning or data analysis expert working with "big data" could earn big dollars. And then there was SQL Azure…

I realized that there was a choice. Either you grow in a career by constant specialization, until you work yourself into such a fine niche that you are one of a few that can do the job well enough to be an expert, or you diversify until you can show that you know enough over a large surface area that you can wear multiple hats.

There is a trade-off of course. If you specialize and are an ace in a hot field like "big data", you can make a ton of money. If you diversify and are not a consultant, you may find a lower paying position but with more job security. If you specialize and are a consultant, you might have the best of both, but end up being a road warrior.

I chose to diversify and ultimately found my way into IT management, and the broad knowledge I continue to absorb as an information-hungry generalist has made that role much easier for me. Wearing multiple hats keeps the brain warm.

Rodney Landrum (guest editor)

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