Peer to Peer

SAN MATEO (04/24/2000) - IT is a fickle business. For unusual jobs, many consulting firms will send out people who are adaptable and willing to learn.

These jobs, which are often more fun, are the ones where either the firm has no idea what the job entails and sends the person best able to fake it, or doesn't have exactly the right person for the job and sends -- you guessed it -- the person best able to fake it.

The generalist

The person who can successfully fake a skill by building on knowledge from similar tasks -- such as administering NT from knowing how to be a Unix administrator -- can become the company troubleshooter, and be highly regarded by superiors. The result, however, is often a reluctance to leave that company.

You become a generalist. You can take apart a computer, install any operating system, program a little in Visual Basic or Perl, manage different kinds of projects, and maybe even be a manager. You might even be comfortable working with marketing or sales. But you don't have "three years in Java" or "4+ years mgmt exp." You have a broad range of experiences, but not much depth in any of them. Without that depth, many e-commerce firms won't hire you, no matter that you might do just fine, and might even be a raging success. But a generalist often doesn't meet the "req," that is to say, the formal requisition required of a successful candidate.

Hiring 'requirements'

Internet companies write requisitions that state a brief job description and a list of job requirements. Requisitions typically look like this: "Web Programmer: Must have 3+ years of Perl experience, 1+ years using Dreamweaver.

Good communications skills. New York area, W-2 only, $XX,000+ DOE." (Check out any popular job board, such as Monster.com or Dice.com, to see more.)What the requisition might not mention is that the successful candidate will have to deal with the client and management and make their desires mesh. You might have one year of Perl and experience with multiple Web design packages, just not Dreamweaver. Could you handle the job? Maybe. Could you handle it better than the Dreamweaver guru who has never dealt with client/management conflict? Probably.

But if that Dreamweaver guru comes looking for a job, you'll have to discover the extra job requirements and convince the interviewer of your worth on the fly. It's very tough to do. What do you do?

Focus your skills

If you're new to IT, pick a track, whether it be networking, work on a Help Desk, whatever. Stick to it. Don't be afraid to jump tracks, but do it after careful consideration. Will it help your career? More to the point, what is your career? What are your goals? If you want to be a Cisco guru, start in data communications or networking, not Help Desk. It's been done the other way, but it's a lot harder.

If you're an experienced IT person, keep looking ahead. Have your goals changed? Do you have any new ones? No matter what your level of experience is, don't let an employer try to make you a square peg in a round hole. Either show them where you belong, or help them shave the corners so you fit. "I would love to do that, so I'll be going to a training session, right?"

If you are already a generalist, you really do have a good foundation on which to stand. Figure out which of your previous assignments were the ones most fitting your goals. Rewrite your resume, focusing on that career track. Find a position on that track, and use your extra knowledge to help sell yourself and to help your colleagues.

For example, if you decide on a programming track, being able to rebuild a test/production server in a hurry will be appreciated by your fellow programmers, as well as management. Your extra skills can enhance your reputation as a programmer, not brand you as a generalist.

Choose your path. Use the Web, Luke.

Joshua Marpet is an IT generalist, but he is really good at hiding it. He can be reached at jmarpet@home.com.

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