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Related to:Specialist roles killing my ability to leave

Many senior employees who have followed a career path of increasing technical specialization find themselves in a tough spot when looking to change organizations. The very specific skill set that they have developed isn't tailored to a lot of available positions (ERP developer in a specific module, petrochemical turnaround scheduler, pump impeller designer, operator of some machine that there are only 3 of in the world, etc). When people like this look to leave their organization they are faced with large parts of their skill set being basically irrelevant in any other role.

What are strategies for maintaining career mobility for those who choose to follow a technical specialization career path?

  • @enderland The community consensus was that the specific skills being listed in that question were integral to it (see rollback history and meta). I feel that since that is the case, that a more generic question without these specifics provides better value to the community. – Myles Jun 2 '17 at 15:37
  • @enderland about a cat's whisker away from being one, but not quite IMHO. I think we can have separate results that might not apply in the more specific IT roles. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Jun 2 '17 at 15:43
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+200

There are millions of jobs out there. Most people are only qualified for a tiny percentage and would be interested in far less than 1/10th of 1% of the available jobs. The key is to get the skills for the job you want and not worry about being unqualified for jobs you are not interested in.

If you are successful as a specialist, it generally takes a different mindset that being a generalist. There is preference for learning in depth rather than learning a smattering of everything which is characteristic of every good specialist I have worked with.

Usually the key to keeping up as a specialist is to learn with the specialty as it grows and changes. Work on staying current in the software of your specialty.

When you want to change specialties, look at jobs that offer your specialty with a chance to upgrade to a new specialty (such as project to convert from one database to another (especially if the new thing is something nobody has skills in yet) or somewhere that supports 80% the stuff you know with a few applications on stuff you want to learn). Look at opportunities with your current organization to expand to new areas and especially to work in cross functional teams.

Look to move into related specialties. An ETL person who is a specialist in SQL Server can more easily qualify for an ETL specialist in an Oracle environment than many who have Oracle experience but not ETL because they (the Oracle generalists) are not as familiar with the type of challenges such work includes.

Same thing with something like Big data. It is easier to learn a new technology than to have an inherent understanding of what data means and how to interpret it. So play to your strengths and make a case for the transferability of your knowledge. It helps if you can spend a week or so before an interview playing with the tech you don't know that you know the position uses, so that you can answer basic questions.

There are lots of sources of technical training, technical is the least concerning part of being a specialist. What you have that is invaluable is the in depth specialist business domain knowledge and the knowledge of how to troubleshoot and solve different typical problems within that specialty. That type of knowledge is often directly transferable to a related specialty. So emphasize your ability to troubleshoot and your depth of knowledge of things beyond the technology. Emphasize your accomplishments and how they helped the business. Another advantage many specialists have is that they are far more likely to have people skills because they end up being involved with users in planning new projects and in explaining what needs to happen for things to work. I have never known a specialist yet who could just sit a computer and push code without having to negotiate and explain and make presentations to people of far higher rank in and out of the organization they work for.

Another way to make yourself more salable as a specialist is to get a reputation nationally as a person with knowledge to share by doing speeches at conferences or doing consulting if that is something you are interested in. Networking is how top specialist get their jobs and that is useful for people starting to specialize as well. Knowing the other people in your specialty is important to having a good career in it. It is even more helpful to get a reputation as a person who can work with people outside your specialty. The DBA who can effectively work with application devs is worth more than the DBA who is known to be antagonistic towards them. Further, by expanding your network to people in other specialties, the QA person you used to work with effectively may think of you when he sees an opening in your specialty.

There are fewer openings for specialties so you need to maximize your chances of hearing about them and getting internal recommendations. That helps you get jobs.

  • 2
    Great answer, just one point: Another advantage many specialist have is that they are far more likely to have people skills because they end up being involved with users in planning new projects and in explaining what needs to happen for things to work. I think outside of development the opposite is common. For example as a turbine blade design you may end up never dealing with anyone other than more general turbine designers, lack of people skills could just be an accepted cost of having to consult the specialist. The most brilliant specialist engineer I know absolutely sucks with people – Myles Jun 2 '17 at 18:34
  • and management only pushes a very small group to interact with him. – Myles Jun 2 '17 at 18:35
  • @Myles, good point, I was thinking in development terms. – HLGEM Jun 5 '17 at 14:02
  • I do prefer this answer instead of RichardU's one, instead of asking to add others skill on top of what you already have this one suggest to find a proper way to salvage your current one. – Walfrat Jun 12 '17 at 8:38
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If you are in a field where you go to increasing levels of specialty from lesser skilled specialized ones, you can always drop back. I.E. An epidemiologist could still make a decent GP while moving on to study oncology.

The key, IMO, is to maintain the less specialized skillsets so that one could either drop down, or branch into a new specialty.

One could also seek training in additional or related skills, and then find a way to do volunteer work in one's spare time. There are always charities dying for help. You could be a database specialist who does volunteer work designing a website for a local not-for-profit, for example.

In summary

  1. Maintain your current skills
  2. Get training for additional skills
  3. Apply the new skills to get the experience on paper by doing volunteer or freelance work.
  • True words have been spoken , IMO being realy specialised into smth shows a great ability to learn and focus , so going once again into deep learning shouldn't be a problem. It will for sure get you out of your confort zone , but this shouldn't be so much a of a problem – Rolexel Jul 7 '17 at 8:36
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Customized Resumes w/ Talent Stack Mapping

The high specialization makes it difficult for people not familiar with the specialized skill to understand how it may apply to the job they have open. Therefore, you will have to call that out on each job application / resume for them, which puts a more work on you.

Take your example of a person that operates a machine of which, there are only three in the world. Let's call these machines, "Machine Foo". Let's say the job you are applying for uses "XZ Machines" which are not as rare, but still expensive.

A person must have some super high level of skill - and a personality - that generates enough trust to let them touch a Machine Foo, let alone operate one.

Those skills and personality traits can be generalized into Talents that everyone would want in an employee, regardless of technology: Technical mastery, dedication, ability to train and work with others, diligence, etc.

The uniqueness of the machine makes these skills far more important than in other industries and that makes it easier to back up your claims of being great in these Talents because management is trusting you with very expensive equipment.

For example:

Machine Foo Operator

Although Machine Foos are almost unique (only three in the world!), they are very similar to your Company's XZ Machines in design and operating methods, and I will be able to easily map my successes below with Machine Foo to your machines.

  • Demonstrated technical dedication and appropriate prudence to be selected to operate Machine Foo - of which there are only three in the world. These machines, due to their rarity are worth $X,XXX,XXX each.

  • Management placed their trust in my skills, foresight and planning to hand over the machine for me to operate entirely.

  • I am one of only two trusted inspectors for Machine Foo. I monitor the health of the machine to ensure any issues are discovered before causing any major damage.

  • I supervise and train all others using the machine to ensure that the machine is well kept and properly handled.

  • Due to my continued monitoring and diligence, the machine has never broken down, never needed a major repair and is running at 99.9% of its productivity potential.

  • Because Machine Foo is similar to other machines at my company, I have been asked on several occasions to help set up, monitor and operate these machines as well because of the trust management places in my skills, troubleshooting and diligence. Once they are properly running, I then train other operators on their use and handling. Some of these machines were XZ Machines.

Summary

By showing personal characteristics (dedication, trustworthiness, mastery, etc) and showing how Machine Foo maps to the XZ Machine (your target), you should be able to compete with just about anyone. And, given that Machine Foo is more expensive and rare, the fact that you were trusted with it, makes you a better candidate to handle XZ Machines.

2

There are ways to promote your relevant skills, but you also have to realize you may not be as profitable to other companies even if they use the same technical stack/tools equipment/processes etc. because all businesses have their own rules.

  1. Willingness to learn new things. Even if you are working on something specific for a long time, mention instances where you were still learning new things. There are people who have learned the latest and greatest technologies, but have an aversion to working on anything else. Being rigid can be a disadvantage for anyone. Make sure you show you have been able and are willing to take on new things.
  2. Generalize specific skills or industry specifics. I've worked in various financial companies. Some did stocks others loans. You have to be able to show you can identify and apply what they have in common.
  3. Demonstrate general skills. Not the same as #2. Verbal and written communication skills can go a long way in any job. Leadership, mentorship and getting along with others is important. Show how you've demonstrated good employee qualities: being one time when necessary, respectful to clients even when they're not, getting things done on time, managing your time, etc. People with no work history struggle to show they have these qualities, so they have to focus on their specific degree/certifications and skills.

The bad news. You're not as useful to the next company as you current company right away. You may have to be realistic about taking a pay cut. Experienced people on a specific job just know more about the way things work and they're not always the same when you go to the next company. You don't even know where the toilets are let along how to trouble-shoot existing systems of any complexity. Just make sure you show how you can get up-to-speed and be a better asset in the long-run.

  • Your answer would be better without the reference to the "technical stack". This term is not widely used outside of the development community. – Myles Jul 10 '17 at 14:32
  • @myles there's always google – user8365 Jul 18 '17 at 14:31
  • While that's true, using industry specific jargon on a question that is entirely intended to be industry agnostic reduces the quality of your answer. – Myles Jul 18 '17 at 16:06

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