IT careers: Does it pay to become a brand specialist?

Before you make a grab for that Salesforce.com architect job, pause and remember: It was once hip to be known as a Lotus 1-2-3 developer

For nearly 20 years, Darren Moore has been known as "the ABAP guy," functioning as the resident expert in SAP's high-level programming language wherever he has worked. Before jumping into the SAP fray, Moore, 48, rode out the early part of his career as a certified NetWare engineer, finding steady employment throughout the '80s and '90s installing small office networks.

Whether it's Novell NetWare, SAP ABAP (Advanced Business Application Programming) or some other hot technology brand, Moore believes product specialization is the most effective route to a high-paying job and all the career success that goes with it. "You have to have a specialization if you want to stick it out in the technology world," says Moore, who currently serves as SAP technical lead, a contract position, at Tyler, Texas-based Brookshire Grocery. "A generalist is going to have a hard time unless their path is toward management. If you're not very specific, you're not going to get the best situations."

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So far, Moore's approach has worked. By keeping an eye on trending technologies and making periodic investments in his own training, he has enjoyed a successful career as a contractor, finding the opportunities to be both plentiful and profitable. He says he has moved from $35-per-hour gigs as a NetWare networking and database consultant to engagements in which he can earn $120 an hour or more as an SAP specialist. "Whenever there's a pause because of a soft market, I look around and try something new," says Moore. "I try to get my fingers on as wide a range of products as I can."

Moore, along with countless other IT professionals who hitch their wagons to hot technology stars, are able to thrive in IT by carving out niches as proven experts in the latest "it" tools. They do especially well when a given product is very popular and the people who know how to use it are in short supply -- think Hadoop developers or Salesforce.com architects.

Yet despite upsides such as steady work and ample paychecks, there are some inherent risks to that strategy, particularly for people seeking full-time jobs rather than contract gigs and for IT professionals who'd ultimately like to pursue careers in management.

In addition, given the general shift among employers toward an emphasis on hiring IT professionals with a strong understanding of business rather than specific technical skills, employment experts warn that brand specialists could find themselves boxed into a corner if they don't balance their domain skills with strategic business knowledge.

"If you brand yourself as a specialist in a specific technology and that's all you know, you'll only address that business need from the perspective of that technology, which isn't always the right answer," says John Reed, senior executive director at Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm. "It's really more about the skills you bring to the table. What's secondary is the tools you would use to solve the business problem."

Another risk of pursuing a career as a specialist in the fickle, fast-moving world of high-tech is that what's considered hot today can become stone cold tomorrow. "You certainly run the risk of the technology becoming obsolete," says Marshall Oldham, director of recruiting at TEKsystems, an IT staffing, talent management and services provider.

"People need to be smart about how and when they hitch their wagon to one of these brands," Oldham says. "People that do are typically pretty savvy and pay attention to industry trends, so they can proactively seek out skills for the next boom."

Oldham advises would-be brand specialists to do thorough and ongoing reconnaissance on the technology landscape to ensure they align with the brands and vendors that have staying power thanks to the right mix of financial backing and market entrenchment -- for example, Salesforce.com, a relative newcomer, and SAP, which has been an enterprise IT mainstay for almost two decades.

Reed advises IT specialists to emphasis general skills and distance themselves from individual brands when seeking new opportunities, unless they're pursuing specific jobs that emphasize a particular technology. So, for example, a SharePoint specialist should highlight collaboration tool skills on his resume while someone who has a VMware job title should position himself as a virtualization expert.

"Talk more about your functional expertise and highlight the tool you have experience with," Reed says. "Don't position yourself exclusively with that technology because you can get pigeonholed."

To avoid being left on the sidelines with outdated expertise, technologists must keep abreast of industry trends by reading trade journals and attending conferences, and they should invest in ongoing professional development and training, Reed says.

Moore, the SAP expert, is a good case in point. He ponied up $7,000 of his own money for a month's worth of SAP training and ABAP certification when he first started out, and several years ago, he doled out another $20,000-plus on a business intelligence certification -- for SAP's Business Information Warehouse -- from one of SAP's training centers. "I went that direction because it was kind of a hot area, and I was concerned that ABAP was running its course," he explains.

Moore acknowledges that training is expensive and sometimes hard to accommodate, especially when you're already working full time. "Typically, you can't take a month off for training," he observes. Moreover, he adds, "if you don't use what you learned, it disappears pretty quickly." He also says it's difficult to figure out when the tide is turning on your chosen IT specialty.

For now, Moore remains committed to SAP despite the fact that competitor Salesforce.com's star is rising. "It would be a whole new world for me to move over to Salesforce.com. I'd have to start at the beginning," he says. "That's not my preference. There will be jobs in SAP for many more years, but they may become more difficult [to find] and probably at lower rates."

Riding a brand into the sunset

Justin Burmeister, who in the late '90s also made a career switch to SAP, from various roles involving Microsoft's Windows NT, says it's possible to pick up new skills on the job. In 1998, when he was in a Windows NT help desk support role, he had an opportunity to work closely with consultants his employer brought in to implement an SAP system. "My company chose to train me on SAP so I could support the systems," says Burmeister, 39, currently associate director of SAP infrastructure at Cheshire, Conn.-based Alexion Pharmaceuticals.

After a six-week knowledge transfer session, Burmeister embarked on years of continuous learning in which he regularly tackled new projects and was called upon to troubleshoot thousands of problems as an SAP BASIS specialist -- a role he says was similar to his Windows NT jobs in that it focuses on root cause analysis and tuning server performance.

Burmeister is well aware that his deep SAP expertise puts him at risk if SAP's standing in the market erodes, but he says he's not overly concerned. "In the case of SAP, companies have eight, nine, even 10-figure investments in SAP projects, so they are pretty much married to the technology," he says. "At this point, I'm in pretty deep because it's all I'm qualified to do, but I think I'd get another 10 to 15 years out of it even if the technology does change."

Business skills still in demand

Nick Brattoli was recently promoted in part because of his concentration on Microsoft's SharePoint collaboration software, but he doesn't see that particular domain expertise as a principal driver for career growth over time. The 29-year-old, whose background is in network engineering, recently changed titles -- from SharePoint implementation engineer to SharePoint architect -- at Medseek, a Birmingham, Ala.-based provider of patient engagement software. Yet he's focusing on developing business-related skills with an eye toward pursuing a career in IT management.

Brattoli says Medseek values his SharePoint credentials, but what really appealed to the company was his prior experience in healthcare IT. "They liked my technical background, but they liked more that I could do the business side of things," he says. "Being good at SharePoint means I know a bunch of things -- how databases and Web pages work, and a lot of encompassing technologies. But it's the 'architect' part of my title that's more important." Now Brattoli is making a point to focus on the problems the business is trying to solve so his skills translate when the time comes to move on, he explains.

High demand + low supply = top dollar

Some brand specialists argue that if they choose the right product, there's no need to worry about latching on to the next great technology, because their skills will remain marketable long after the heyday of the brand.

That was Joseph Morgan's strategy for quite a while. The 31-year IT veteran was able to work for years doing PowerBuilder development long after the Microsoft/Sybase environment lost its luster in the late 1990s. "Even if something is considered old, you can still wring more career value out of it because there are companies invested in the technology who need assistance," he says. "You just need to do the legwork to find the opportunities."

Morgan, 49, eventually moved on from PowerBuilder and settled in with a new specialty -- IBM's DataPower integration appliance. He was introduced to it in the mid-2000s while working at a company that encouraged him to get trained and certified in DataPower. He was initially reluctant, but he quickly recognized the product's staying power, given its emphasis on security, networking and application development.

With a new specialty under his belt, Morgan has been able to negotiate what he calls "top-dollar salaries" and a variety of other perks, such as reimbursement for relocation expenses.

Because DataPower specialists are in short supply, he's also been able to parlay his domain expertise into a rather unique working situation: He's currently in a full-time DataPower role at Netsmart, a provider of electronic medical records technology, but also makes himself available as needed to the Department of Veterans Affairs as a contract DataPower administrator.

"There are so few people that actually either want to stay with [DataPower] or want to do it that it leaves high demand and low supply for this particular skill set," he says. "That's real good for a career if it's something you want to connect yourself to."

But even from his current perch in the catbird seat, Morgan advises his IT colleagues to cover the bases. "Have as many skills as you possibly can, whether it's database technology, old technology or the latest hot technology," he says. "That way, when one thing is not popular, you can do something else."

Longtime Computerworld contributor Beth Stackpole recently wrote about ways to keep new IT hires from jumping ship.

This article, " IT Careers: Does It Pay to Become a Brand Specialist?" was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Read more about IT careers in Computerworld's IT Careers Topic Center.

This story, "IT careers: Does it pay to become a brand specialist?" was originally published by Computerworld .

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