Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Are you an IT Generalist or Specialist?

One of the difficulties in working as the only computer support employee in the small to medium business is the number of IT hats that you are expected to wear. You and I know that there are huge differences in skill sets required to support each area of technology such as desktops, servers, networks, routers, firewalls, application software and websites.

The problem is that business owners do not understand that there are differences and are both shocked and frustrated when they first discover this. To them, if you know how to keep the network running, then you should also know how to program in PHP to make small changes in the website. No, they don’t know or care that you don’t write in PHP.

A multitude of technology in the small business

They don’t know or care that they have a SQL Server, or what an IIS server is or even where their website is hosted. Most busy executives don’t know what an operating system is or why they have to buy one for every computer and especially why they can’t get free upgrades when a new version comes out. To them, a computer is like a toaster.

Complexities of email hosting, spam and virus filtering or how data gets from their computer to the outside world are way beyond their level of concern. They don’t know or care about wired or wireless networks, encryption, remote access security, intrusion detection and prevention or why server maintenance contracts need to be renewed.

Understanding starts in the hiring process

It can be a most disconcerting experience to have to deal with an irate business owner who feels he got cheated when he hired you. Although you want the job, don’t make the mistake or give the impression in the interview that you can do everything related to computers. The need to hire outside consultants is a fact of life in the small business.

Make it clear up front what skill sets you possess as compared to what the business needs. What makes it difficult is when the owner of the business doesn’t know what technology he has purchased over the years or what skills are required to support it. Reality says that you can’t support everything, even though you may desire to do so.

Using outside consultants is a necessity

For example, you may be a great network administrator and know how you want your firewalls configured between your remote locations. But how often do you really need to modify a firewall once it is setup and you are not adding new locations every month? It is probably better to have an outside firewall specialist make the changes when needed.

Large companies have IT staff with specialists in each area – desktop support, server administration, infrastructure maintenance, application programming, web development and a host of other specialties. Make sure your small business owner understands that using outside specialists is a necessity that saves him money by keeping his staff small.

Continue to develop and enhance your skill set

As the business grows, it will eventually reach the point where the need for an outside skill that used to be infrequent occurs so often that the owner wonders why it is not being taken care of in-house. It is a wise IT employee who is aware of the problems this can cause in the mind of the small business owner who pays $150 an hour for these skills.

One of the most common areas in which you might want to consider enhancing your skills is website development and maintenance. Writing in HTML with Adobe Creative Suite, Javascript, CSS, Flash and Actionscript, Photoshop, PHP and MySQL are all areas that will prove helpful and valuable in the small business with no development staff.

Technical training a good investment

Although it may be tough in today’s economic environment, it is a wise business owner who agrees to help his computer support staff develop these skills. You may have been hired for your desktop and server support capabilities, but when website maintenance is needed more and more, it makes sense for the business to pay for training materials.

Even if your company is so small or cash-strapped that they will not pay for training, it can be a good investment to pay for such training yourself. I recommend as one of the best values for online technology training. For $375 you can receive a year of unlimited access to all of their training materials, with professionally produced videos.

Online training is very popular

Years ago, when I first started my technology training, a classroom environment was the only thing that was offered. I spent four hours a night after work, five days a week for three months getting the training for my MCSE. It was inconvenient and not as effective as it could have been because sometimes I was tired and other times I had time conflicts.

That’s why I am convinced that online training is the best way to go to pick up technical skills that you need. There are many sites besides but from what I have seen, it offers the best value for the money. There is no way you can view all 37,000 videos that they offer even if you spent every night in pursuing training for the rest of the year.

Summary and conclusion

If you work in a large IT department, you probably possess specialized skills and spend most of your day working in that one skill set – be it SQL Server, Oracle, Cisco IOS, Adobe Creative Suite or any other specialized skill. If you work for a small business, you most likely spend your day using a multitude of tech skills for supporting your coworkers.

Being an IT generalist has the advantage of being able to offer a broad level of support to the small business. In good times the in-depth skills you don’t have can be outsourced. In today’s difficult economic market, it is a good investment to develop additional skills to offer your employer. Online training is inexpensive and a good way to reach this goal.


Mary Ann said...


I really like your post on creating value as an IT manager. I work for an IT outsourcing company now and we struggle to communicate our value to IT managers. I think this article would be great to pass on to IT managers we come in contact with. Would you mind if I used some of your content?

Tim Malone said...

Hi Mary Ann,

Feel free to use the content of this essay in the materials you provide to IT managers. Thank you for asking. Providing value in today's economic environment is the best way to stand out as a valueable employee in the small to medium business market.

schester said...


I enjoyed reading your posts, even if they are a little old they still certainly apply. I'm sure your time is limited, but I'd look forward to following your blog if you're planning on keeping it up.

I think you've posted some great info here for people of all backgrounds. It is certainly true that you can't specialize in everything!