Misunderstandings About Specialization in IT Professional Services Careers
Over the course of my career, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with job candidates about the need for both breadth and depth in their IT professional services careers. Both are necessary aspects to achieve career success over the long term. For most people, that dual necessity is fairly intuitive. People understand they need to go deep into a subject in order to reasonably claim expertise. They also understand that the needs of technologies and business change, so it’s prudent to maintain, at a minimum, a broad awareness of other areas.
But it’s important to go beyond a surface-level understanding of breadth and depth. I’ve seen career progress significantly compromised because people haven’t truly grappled with what it means to be what we refer to as a “functional expert”—one who can make a real impact as a consultant over time and in many different scenarios.
So, I’d like to offer here my take on one of the most significant misunderstandings about the concept of specialization (depth) and how your specialization should fit with others’ (breadth).
Many people think their expertise is measured by how well they know a particular piece of technology. But that’s a mistaken view. Your expertise is, instead, measured by the positive impact you make with a technology. It’s not enough to be have several certifications in a specific software platform. That’s helpful but not complete.
Instead, you need to think of yourself—your specialization—as focused on a set of business outcomes. Your expertise, as well as your passion, should lie in achieving those outcomes and be measured by your ability to deliver them. That’s a different mindset than thinking about yourself as specializing in a particular technology.
Having this mindset enables the ideal kind of breadth, which isn’t actually what many people presume. People often make the mistake of thinking about breadth as knowing a little about a lot of things. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what’s more important is your ability to apply your specialization (expertise) broadly—working effectively toward a business outcome with people of many types who have many different perspectives.
The breadth, then, comes in your range of ability to deliver your specialization. That’s a subtle but powerful point. One way to understand it better may be to consider Concurrency as a firm. One aspect of our success is the decision to specialize in solving business problems using Microsoft technologies. The breadth comes in our ability to integrate those technologies across a vast range of contexts.
The specific nature of our depth and breadth as a firm trickles down to the consultant level as well. The same lessons apply to professional services in general, because clients want “functional experts”—people who can truly make an impact and get things done.