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'Specialist or Generalist?' May Not Be the Question

By Carrie Johnson
Sunday, August 26, 2001; Page L01

It's a long-running conflict among workers drawn to technology.

Is it better to hone one talent or to pitch yourself as the modern version of Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate Renaissance person?

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The debate is heating up as the labor market cools. Some employees cope by juggling multiple responsibilities; others try to reinvent themselves as experts in one niche.

Which strategy proves most effective in the long term remains a subject of disagreement among recruiters and teachers. Often, they say, this decision depends on a worker's personality and career goals.

Joe Cotton, a D.C. computer programmer, said he prefers to think of himself as a free agent who can carry his techie skills from "site to site, job to job, without needing to know all about the particular business I'm working for."

After all, Cotton said, he spends most of his time transferring lists of data into electronic reports and databases. It doesn't matter to him what the information means or how it is used. Like many other longtime technology specialists, he believes the best way to keep moving forward in the field is to know one skill inside and out.

"Some background is always useful," Cotton said. "But a complete education and years of experience" with a particular industry are not. Often technical skills can be transferred from one line of business to the next.

Some researchers who track hiring decisions say that even in an uncertain economic climate, the hottest skills a worker can possess are intangibles, such as the ability to work on a team and to get along with colleagues and clients alike.

"Tech skills get you the job," said Pete Saflund, an educator at the NorthWest Center for Emerging Technologies, a Bellevue, Wash., group that studies workforce patterns. "It's the meaning you make out of things that keep the job."

In an April survey by the Information Technology Association of America, hiring managers prized loyalty and people skills above all other desirables in new employees, according to Marjorie Bynum, the group's employment guru.

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