Specializing in the IT Field


I get this question from readers and students quite often: “How can I get ahead in the IT field?”

Over the years I have learned that the best answer is to specialize. Of course that isn’t the only answer to the question of getting ahead, but it’s what this article is all about. By specializing in a particular branch of IT, a person increases his or her marketability and job security. There are lots of people with college degrees, and lots of people with computer certifications. And of course, there are lots of people with experience. But when vying for an IT position, the least likely person you will face is a person who is specialized. This is because specialized IT people are in high demand. So while the aforementioned attributes (degrees, certifications, experience) are important to have, in my opinion, and from what I have seen in the IT field, the most important piece of the puzzle is specialization.

That begs the question: “What is IT specialization?”

In my experience, IT specialization means focusing in on a specific skill set that is important to a company. One example of what I consider to be a specialty is messaging (the bulk of which is e-mail). What I don’t consider to be a specialty is something vendor related, for example the Microsoft MCITP certification, or a specific Cisco product, although those might be ingredients of a particular specialty. Companies and organizations rely heavily on e-mail (and other types of messaging), but, for example, they don’t necessarily need a Microsoft Exchange Server; they could possibly implement a different solution. That’s the way to look at it – what does the company need? Look at it from a practical and functional standpoint. Not from a vendor’s standpoint.

E-mail Specialty Example

The specialty should be all-encompassing within its particular arena. So in the example of e-mail, a person should have a thorough understanding of the following:

• How e-mail works

• Why and how people use it

• The different types of e-mail servers and protocols

• How e-mail relates to the OSI model

• e-mail technologies: Client/server based systems such as Microsoft Exchange Server and Outlook, Lotus Notes. Web-based clients such as OWA, horde, and SquirrelMail. Browser-based systems such as Gmail and Yahoo mail

• How to secure e-mail: from dealing with attachments to blocking spam, and filtering out social engineering attempts. This means knowledge of policies, add-on software, and hardware appliances. E-mail clients for the various smartphones and other handheld devices, and how they interact with servers.

A person who wants to specialize in e-mail should have extensive networking knowledge, security knowledge, know server technologies, and understand mobile communications as well.

I recommend you certify to as many e-mail technologies as possible: Exchange Server, Lotus Notes, Outlook MOS, and so on. When studying, a person should use two or even three sources. By learning from multiple sources, you learn in a deeper more powerful way and can fill gaps in each learning source by comparing and contrasting. Instructor-led courses, CBTs, and free online videos can also be very helpful. Manufacturers of e-mail software and hardware solutions often have free training on their websites. Some technical colleges even have curriculums that deal specifically with e-mail communications.

Going outside the norm

The messaging specialty might go beyond e-mail. Faxing, instant messaging, video conferencing and texting might also be included as part of a company’s total communications solutions. While it is difficult to know everything, and while the term communications is very, very broad, the e-mail specialist should have a strong foundation of knowledge in these other areas. It is also important to have some understanding of wireless technologies both local and over larger geographical areas.

Keeping sharp

Now, keep in mind that this is just one example, and while I gave a pretty long list of technologies to know, the list is not all-encompassing. You have to be ready to fill in the gaps, and be sure to keep up to date on your skill set. That’s the hardest part of IT. Because technologies change so rapidly, you need to set aside time every day to educate yourself on the latest and greatest. This means going to websites, reading periodicals, watching videos, and attending training and seminars to keep your skills sharp. By specializing and keeping that specialty current, you increase your job security by a huge margin.

Other specialization examples

Other specialties in the computer networking field include:

• Network operations
• Database operations
• Computer Telephony Integration (CTI)
• Network Security
• Printing
• Web server administration
• Server operations
• Internetworks
• Wireless technologies
• Fault Tolerance/Disaster Recovery
And the list goes on…

Think business needs, not vendors

Note once again that I am not referring to Microsoft, Cisco, Checkpoint, or other vendors’ products as specialties. Don’t fall into this trap. Vendors come and go, and their technologies are constantly changing. Plus, what works for one company doesn’t work for another, and in addition, someone is always building a better mouse trap. Technology is neutral, and our approach to it should be neutral as well. Test thoroughly and use whatever works best for your particular organizational needs. What works today might not work tomorrow. By spreading out your skills over multiple technologies and vendors, you can more quickly adapt to the rapidly changing technology landscape. My best advice is to remember to think of your specialty as something a business needs, not as something vendor-related.

I hope you benefit from this article. I get this question quite often in class and on my website, and the recommendations shown here seem to help greatly in that ever elusive job hunt.

Good luck out there!