IT jobs: A specialist economy or reign of the polymath?

Staffing firm Robert Half argues that the tech economy is entering an era of hyperspecialization. The catch? These specialties can be automated, and without a broad range of skills it'll be hard to retool a career.

Technology staffing firm Robert Half argues in a whitepaper that the economy is becoming a specialist job market where people with specialties and coveted niches will rake in all the dough at the expense of generalists. The whitepaper is convincing to some degree, but information technology careers seem to be going against the specialist argument.

In fact, I'd take the other side of Robert Half's argument. If anything, we're entering a job market that will require more skills of a polymath — someone who knows business as well as technology, can tell a story, and has a dose of emotional intelligence to manage people. Big data needs more polymaths and folks who can talk tech as well as statistics and science. These polymaths will be needed to glue the specialists together into a cohesive team.

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Robert Half, who, granted, is talking its own game as a staffing firm to a large degree, makes the following case in a whitepaper:



Here's the problem: I see many of those specialties and think they'll be automated at some point. If not automated, certainly outsourced. Robert Half's argument is that workers can reposition and market themselves based on various specialties and buzzwords — think cloud, big data, social, etc. Indeed, network and database admins are in demand today. Does anyone really think the software-defined data center will spare these roles a decade from now? I didn't think so.

The argument against specialization is that much of the technology budget power is floating away from chief information officers. Salesforce this week acquired Exact Target for $2.5 billion. Why? Chief marketing officers.

Here's Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff:

When we look out at the CRM marketplace, we recognize that for us to continue to be number one in CRM, we of course have to be number one in sales, which we are. We have to be number one in service, which we are. But, we also need to work even harder to become number one at marketing. Marketing is rapidly evolving. As you know, Gartner says that by 2017, CMOs are going to spend more on technology then CIOs. Now, we found that out personally, because as we travel the world that our Customer Company Tours, many of which you've attended, or network customers individually, we continue to hear and see them invest in major new ways of marketing. I was just at one of our large customers in New York at Bank of America. You could see it firsthand.

CMOs wouldn't fit Robert Half's definition of specialized IT talent. Today, help desk and customer support folks are in demand. Tomorrow, IBM's Watson will do it.

When the history of IT is written, we'll be lucky to break even on the job front. IT destroys as many positions as it creates.

What's the solution? Robert Half is right that specialists are in demand. The catch is workers need to know when to jump off that horse and onto another one. There's an education gap for specialized skills, but if you focus too much on a specialty, you risk not being able to jump ship when the economy demands it. Just knowing when to swap specialties will require a more general education as well as a business sixth sense. In other words, some specialists will be automated out of the work force. A person more akin to a polymath will have a more diversified career path.