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Specialist versus generalist: Which is best for tech workers?

1 Aug 2023

We spoke to Hays’ James Milligan about the pros and cons of being a ‘jack of all trades’ in tech and whether or not there’s value in going niche.

The term ‘jack of all trades’ is often spoken about in mixed ways. Sometimes people describe themselves as such to highlight that they’re adequately skilled in multiple areas. Others might lengthen the idiom to say: ‘A jack of all trades is a master of none’, implying that being a little bit good at everything means you’re not particularly skilled in any one area.

However, there is a further, perhaps lesser-known extension of the quote: ‘A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.’ This brings it back to the idea that it is indeed better to be more of a generalist rather than specialise in just one skill.

With all that in mind, what does it mean for tech workers and their skills? Is it better to be a tech generalist or a tech specialist? Is it possible to find a happy medium? To find out, we spoke to James Milligan, global head of technology at Hays.

‘If you go down that more niche route, your skill has a premium to it’

He said most people enter technology via one of two routes, either via a graduate programme where they’re exposed to many different areas or with a specific goal in mind, for instance, to become a data analyst.

“I think early in your career, it’s quite interesting to get exposure to different areas if you can, especially if you’re not sure what you want to do,” he told SiliconRepublic.com.

“There are people who enter technology through a whole host of different routes versus those that have come out with a very structured degree focusing on a particular niche.”

Milligan said that in the later situations, or in cases where someone may have done an apprenticeship or focused on a particular formal accreditation within an area, going a little more specialist might be a better route. “When I’m saying the niche, it’s not even that that niche. These are big buckets of opportunity.”

Specialist skills

Where specialist skills become a particular benefit is in IT contracting. This is where organisations may choose to buy in a particular skill for a specific project that may not be readily available on the market.

“If you go down that more niche route, your skill has a premium to it, particularly if it’s demand. That’s really beneficial to you if you’ve decided you want to be an IT contractor in a technical discipline.”

While he said there is no one answer to whether specialist or generalist is better, Milligan said having a portfolio of skills is valuable, even if you do have some niche or specialist skills within a tech stack for example.

“The broader your skillset and the broader the exposure that you have, the more context that you can fit in to,” he said.

“There are loads of people that go into technology and they didn’t start in technology. They might have started in marketing or finance or HR and then worked on some type of systems projects or implementation and found themselves working as a business analyst or project manager and actually, organically make that shift from being a functional person into technology.”

Top tips for general tech workers

Milligan said that one of the key skills for workers right now, no matter where they are in their careers, is to understand the bigger picture of what they’re doing.

“I think more and more, organisations want to hire people that understand the functions of an organisation, so they’re not just within the technology function, they understand the broader purpose and how all of those things fit together,” he said.

“These days, sitting in a room in the corner coding really isn’t there. There is a requirement to be able to interact and engage with people and to be able to translate technical language into non-technical language when you’re dealing with a non-technical audience.”

With this in mind, he said soft skills are really important, especially to make yourself stand out. “Different people have different soft skills, nobody’s the same but being able to do something other than just your core function is very useful and to have a more holistic understanding of the business means that contextually you’re able to probably contribute more.”

For those starting out, Milligan advised getting as much exposure as possible to as many different people and different styles as possible, which will give you a good baseline upon which to build.

Advice for specialists

For those looking for a bit more advice around specialisation, Milligan said anything technical in nature is in high demand right now. Zooming in a little closer on the trends within tech, he pointed to three main buckets globally: Data and advanced analytics, cloud and cybersecurity.

“Loads of organisations don’t have the basic baseline data integrity in place to take advantage of some of this technology…so any skills related to that, Python being one, [also] data visualisation, data analysis, all of those types of things, it demands across various different technologies,” said Milligan.

For cloud, he said AWS Azure in particular, is an important skill in this area. “Historically, a lot of the placements we made maybe 10 years ago would have been in first-line support, second-line support, desktop engineers etc. That world does not exist the same way as it did 10 years ago.

“The growth of investment in cloud strategies means that organisations are looking for people who can execute those skills. These include cloud engineers, architects, DevOps and site reliability.”

The third bucket is cybersecurity, which Milligan said is even more important now that it was before.

“People work in a different way to what they used to. There is media coverage on an almost daily basis about cyberattacks and the reputational financial damage that causes to organisations, so again, across a broad range of skills, but security engineers, security architects, SOC analysts and so on, these skills are very much in demand as well as your general software development skills.”

One additional note Milligan had for those who are looking to showcase their specialist skills is to not only think about this in terms of technical abilities but in specific expertise that comes with sector knowledge.

“So, legislation that relates to financial services or frameworks they use within the public sector, understanding the various different mechanisms that are in place in regulated industries like life sciences, that’s where the knowledge is,” he said.

“[It’s] less technical and more of the sector-led knowledge. You could call that a bit more generalist, but there’s still an importance to having a certain amount of knowledge.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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