A lot of IT pros enter the industry in generalist support roles. Within a few years they start to realise that being a generalist may not be the best long-term career strategy.
The question is, which area of IT should they focus on for the next phase in their career?
It's a tough decision to make. You would think that exposure to many areas of tech would make it easier to choose something to specialise in. But instead, we often find that having too many options makes the decision more difficult.
What I often recommend is to apply the 80/20 rule to your dilemma. The 80/20 rule (also known as the Pareto principle) states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
You can see the 80/20 rule in many areas of life and business. For example, 80% of a business's revenues often comes from 20% of their customers, or from 20% of their product offerings.
In the job of an IT generalist, 80% of the enjoyment also tends to come from just 20% of the work performed.
For example, a generalist support technician might get exposed to server support, an Office 365 migration, creating a desktop image to deploy, supporting desktop apps for users, running cables for a new office area, writing Python scripts, and migrating a website to a new Linux VM in the cloud.
All of those things can be fun to do the first time. But will they be enjoyable as a full-time speciality?
Applying the 80/20 rule, the support technician should ask themselves which 20% of their work creates 80% of their enjoyment. That 20% is the area that they should focus on.
If they dislike end-user app support, but love rolling out the cabling and network equipment for new office floors and buildings, then perhaps focusing on networking projects is the right choice.
If they dislike messing with server hardware, but love doing cloud migrations and managing cloud environments, then focusing on cloud-based jobs is probably the right choice.
If they love talking to people and coordinating budgets and external providers, but dislike getting hands-on with the equipment itself, then focusing on management or project management is probably the right choice.
When you can find that area of interest to focus on, it answers one question, but also creates more questions:
- Is my area of interest a growing or shrinking market?
- What training do I need to do to skill up in that area?
- Does my current employer have opportunities for me to move into more specialist roles?
- Are there jobs in my area for those specialities, or will I need to relocate somewhere else?
- Is there more career opportunities later if I choose that path?
Asking yourself those questions will validate your choice of specialities. Perhaps the networking interest turns out to not be a great choice, because the local job market for networking jobs is weak, and you don't want to relocate your family to another part of the country. So you put that option aside and consider what your next best choice would be.
Perhaps the cloud-focused job turns out to be a great choice, because your current employer is planning a heavy cloud adoption project in the next 12 months, and you have time to train up and join the team that will be doing that project. With that experience on your resume, a wider market of job opportunities for cloud engineer and architect roles opens up in the future.
And there's always the possibility that what you really enjoy about your job is the variety. For some people, working at a nice place, with nice people, for decent money, and a good variety of interesting work to do is what makes them happy. If that is you, and you're content to remain a generalist, then that is your choice to make.
I would caution you though that a lack of specialities can be detrimental in the long-term if you try to make a late-career change. If you choose to remain in generalist roles, I recommend that you at least develop some clear strengths in your skillset.
As a final note, if you find yourself stuck because you enjoy so many different things, that's okay too. Having too many areas of interest is a better problem than not being interested in anything at all. As I tell my kids (and myself), you can do anything, but you can't do everything.
The big worry is, will you make the wrong choice and miss out on something you would have enjoyed more?
The answer is, probably not. Everything has its good and bad sides. So even when you pick something that you do love working with, it will cause you some frustration and annoyance from time to time. That's just life. It doesn't mean you chose poorly. If you're still enjoying your area of speciality 80-90% of the time, then you are on the right track.