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Should I become a technology specialist or generalist?

May 24, 2023

Wondering if you should become a tech specialist or generalist, or something in between? In this article, we break down the pros and cons of both, how these might impact your salary and career options, and how to take your career in these directions. If you're more of a watcher than a reader, you might also enjoy checking out this video: "Specialist vs Generalist: Which is better?"

No matter your industry, there almost always comes a time when you’ve got to make that pivotal choice: do I want to be good at a lot of different things, or be really good at one specific thing? The classic example of this is in medicine with general practitioners and medical specialists. Both are legitimate options, but what you decide greatly impacts your career path!

Of course, technology is no different, and it can be equally hard to figure out where to spend your energy. From cloud computing to cybersecurity and AI, the field is so vast, you can’t master it all, but you can become a bit knowledgeable in a lot of areas.

Table of contents

Tech generalist vs. tech specialist: Which option is best?

If you’re looking for a prescriptive answer, like “being a specialist is always better”, then I’ll save you some time: there is none. You can find people who will say that — no doubt on Reddit — but a statement like that is woefully untrue, and overly simplistic. No career is one size fits all.

Some people love being cybersecurity specialists and being the master of that field, while others find it stressful to drink from the firehose of constant learning. Conversely, there are people who love being that go-to person who knows a bit of everything in an organization, and these people can do very well in management. 

You need to look at the options, and make a considered choice. That’s what this article is all about — helping you make the decision that’s best for you. But first, let’s examine the options.

What is a technology generalist?

Tech generalists are like swiss army knives

A technology generalist is someone who has a broad understanding of multiple technology fields, and can be valuable in roles that require a more holistic view of technology solutions. They’re the swiss army knife of the tech world, the proverbial “Jack of all Trades”.

What are the benefits of being a technology generalist?

Adaptability: Generalists are versatile by nature, able to work on a wide range of projects and in a variety of technology roles as the business requires. You can often find a place to belong in a business.

Broad perspective: Generalists can see the big picture — how different technologies can fit together to solve more complex problems. This is a highly valued trait in many organizations, especially large companies where siloing is a problem.

Communication skills: Generalists can communicate with specialists in different technical fields, because they have a working knowledge of different technologies. 

Management pathways: In large organizations, having a broad understanding of multiple technology fields and a holistic perspective is valuable to running day-to-day operations and bringing teams and stakeholders together. In short, management material!

What are the downsides of being a technology generalist?

While there are a lot of perks to being a generalist, there are also some potential downsides to consider. Note that these are not universal and may be dependent on the region of employment and employer.

Lack of deep expertise: A generalist has broad knowledge of technology, not deep. This limits their ability to solve complex problems in specific areas of technology, and they’re never going to be a substitute for a specialist in that field.

Difficulty keeping up: Generalists need to be constantly learning and adapting, to stay current, and there’s a wide range of areas to keep an eye on. If not, their skills could become outdated.

Fewer job opportunities for practitioners: If you want to be a dedicated hands-on generalist rather than in management, it’s harder to find tech positions. That’s because some employers prefer to hire specialists with deep expertise in a specific tech area, rather than someone who knows a bit of everything. 

Lack of credibility: In some situations (not all), generalists might not be taken as seriously as a specialist, because their knowledge of certain technology areas are not as deep.

Lack of focus: Generalists can be asked to wear a lot of hats at once, which means they may struggle to focus on and finish specific projects or initiatives.

What sort of roles do tech generalists have?

In smaller organizations, one person might end up being responsible for a lot of different technologies due to budget. This can be great for people who like to do a lot of things and want to feel important to a company. They might be working on web dev, server admin, solutions architecture, and more.

In larger organizations, a generalist will often be a project leader, IT manager, or integrations specialist. Their broad technology knowledge is often complemented by soft skills in people management and stakeholder engagement, since they are frequently dealing with end users and other departments.

Common generalist job titles:

  • Technology Strategist: A strategist helps organizations develop and implement technology strategies, often with a focus on innovation and growth.

  • Solutions Architect: An architect who designs and implements technology solutions, often with a broad understanding of multiple technology fields.

  • Technical Project Manager: A project manager who specializes in overseeing technology projects, with a focus on managing cross-functional teams and overseeing success.

  • Business Analyst: An analyst who helps organizations identify and solve business problems using technology solutions, often with a broad understanding of multiple technology fields.

  • IT Manager: A manager who oversees the day-to-day operations of an organization's technology infrastructure.

  • IT Support Professional: Someone who provides overall IT support for an organization.

What qualities and skills do I need to be a technology generalist?

If you’ve got a broad and natural curiosity about how a lot of different technologies work — and how they can be used to solve problems — then you’ve probably well suited to be a generalist. Generalists are also flexible, adaptable, and able to learn new technologies quickly. 

Soft skills are very important to technology generalists. Strong communication skills are a must, since you’ll be working with a lot of technical and non-technical stakeholders to make projects successful. You’ll need a collaborative mind-set and be comfortable working with others. Leadership and management training can also be beneficial.

Analytical thinking and creative problem solving skills are also valuable skills to succeed as a generalist. You’ll be analyzing complex problems and developing creative solutions to them.

What is a technology specialist?

Tech specialists have deep knowledge in one area but narrow focus

A technology specialist is someone who has deep expertise in a particular area of technology — they’re the “go to” person on the topic. They’re up to date with all the latest news in their specialized field, and are able to offer expert guidance and solutions that a generalist can’t.

What are the benefits of being a technology specialist?

Focus on what you love: Specialists can dedicate themselves to that one thing they’re passionate about (and get paid for doing it). What’s better than that?

Deep knowledge: Specialists know more about their specific technology area than anyone else, which means they can offer tailored solutions that few can. 

High demand: Specialists are in high demand, especially in fields like AI/ML, cybersecurity, and cloud computing. When specialists walk into an interview, there’s normally less competition to deal with.

High salaries for non-management roles: Specialists with in-demand skills don’t need to become managers to command higher salaries and perks: their unique experience means they come in with plenty of bargaining power.

What are the downsides of being a technology specialist?

Much like being a generalist, there are potential downsides to working as a specialist. Again, these are not universal, and depend on your region and employer.

Narrow focus: Specialists are great at what they know, but are limited in their ability to work on projects that require a broader understanding of multiple technology fields. This also means they’ve really got to love their field, because that’s what they’ll be doing.

Limited career opportunities: It might sound paradoxical, but specialists are paradoxically in high demand and more limited in their career options. For example, if there’s no jobs advertised for their chosen speciality, there’s less “similar” jobs to apply for, as opposed to if you’re moderately qualified in a lot of things.

Risk of obsolescence: There’s always the risk that a particular technology or skill set becomes outdated or obsolete (Think about how crucial maintaining in-house servers used to be, for example). Because this makes up a large part of a specialist’s skill set, there’s less to fall back on.

Difficulty communicating with non-technical stakeholders: When your knowledge of a topic is very deep, a side-effect is it can be hard to simplify it at a high level for others, hampering collaboration.

Siloed work: Tech specialists can spend so long working within a specific area, it can limit their ability to collaborate effectively with other teams and departments.

What sort of roles do tech specialists have?

How broad is the ocean? There are countless areas to specialize in when it comes to technology, but here are some of the more popular ones:

  • Cybersecurity Specialist

  • Serverless Cloud Architect

  • Data Scientist

  • AI/Machine Learning Engineer

  • Web Developer

  • Mobile Developer

  • Software Engineer

  • Technical Writer

  • UI/UX Designer

  • Quality Assurance Engineer

… And the list goes on! For a list of the top tech careers this year, check out our article: “Keep an eye out for these top tech careers in 2023.” This article also includes a list of the top 10 paying jobs in fields like cybersecurity, cloud specialization, solutions architecture, and more.

What qualities and skills do I need to be a technology specialist?

This really depends on the field in question. For example, if you want to work as a data specialist, it helps if you love finding patterns–but that isn’t as important for a cloud specialist! But there are two things you need to succeed in all specialist roles: a love of learning, and a passion for your field.

Continuous learning is important in technology, but even more so for a specialist: you need to know about the latest trends, threats, and solutions in your chosen area. This is what makes you a “specialist”, after all! And needless to say, if you’re not passionate about your chosen field, it’s much easier to burn out on doing it (especially since it will be mostly all you’re doing for the foreseeable future). 

The third option: The T-shaped technology professional

A t-shaped specialist is the best of both worlds, and a great aim for all technology pros

“What if I don’t want to be either a generalist or a specialist?” Well, you’re in luck! There’s an approach that combines the best of both worlds, and it’s called being a T-shaped technology professional (isn’t that a mouthful?). 

What is a T-shaped technology professional?

T-shaped technology professionals have a broad understanding of multiple areas of tech but also have a deep expertise in one specific area. This would look like a “T” if you were to draw it out, hence the name. 

What are the benefits of being a T-shaped technology professional?

Versatility: T-shaped pros can work on a variety of projects like a generalist, but also offer expert insights into their chosen expertise. 

Collaborative skills: These professionals are able to speak the same language as other tech professionals in different fields, since they have the same working knowledge as a generalist.

Innovation: Because T-shaped professionals have a broader knowledge of technology solutions as a whole, they’re able to identify opportunities for innovation both in their chosen field and across the board.

What are the downsides of being a T-shaped technology professional?

There’s very few downsides to being a T-shaped tech professional, but those that exist are listed below.

Time management: Like a generalist, T-shaped professionals can be pulled into multiple projects since there’s a lot of places they can add value. But being spread thin can hamper their ability to deliver on each of them, if they’re not careful.

Difficulty maintaining experience: While a specialist only has to focus on keeping up to date in their chosen area, a T-shaped professional needs to do this plus everything else at a general level.

Why all tech professionals should really be T-shaped specialists

Some problems associated with someone becoming a full specialist instead of a T-shaped specialist is they can become difficult to work with and dangerously over-specialised. A danger comes from making decisions that seem good in one particular line of thinking but are actually bad when you look at the big picture. 

One example could be asking a hyper-specialized Kubernetes administrator about storing huge amounts of data with exceptionally high durability and spiky access patterns.  How closely do you think their resulting architecture would resemble the internals of an object storage service like AWS S3?  And at what cost?  If they don't know enough about cloud services to at least suggest considering such an existing offering, instead, it could saddle the project with massive technical debt right from the get-go. 

How can I become a T-Shaped specialist?

If you’re already a generalist: Just determine the professional area you’re most interested in, and delve right in! Your approach may differ depending on the field, but working your way through practitioner and expert-level certifications and courses is usually a safe bet. Sign yourself up for sites and channels that share the latest in industry news so you can stay on the cutting edge. 

If you’re already a specialist: The best way to do this is to take a lot of foundational or associate-level courses or certifications in a wide variety of areas (cybersecurity, cloud, DevOps, etc). 

If you’re neither: Both of the above.

Next steps: Figuring out what skills to learn

Becoming a T-shaped specialist involves upskilling, and even when you are one, you’ve got to keep your skill set current. However, according to Pluralsight’s State of Upskilling report 2023, even though 74% of tech professionals receive some time during the week to learn new tech skills, almost a third of us struggle to figure out what to learn. 

To figure out where to spend your upskilling efforts, here are some helpful resources: