Technology Increasingly Creates Career Silos

Susan Hall

University of Kentucky CIO Vince Kellen, in an interview with my colleague Ann All, discussed the increasing specialization of CIOs. He told her:

Once you're a CIO in a vertical, it's hard to leave that vertical. Your value to the vertical is very important, especially if you're good at the business stuff. You know so much about your industry, you'll be valuable to competitors, too. At the highest levels of executive leadership, you've got to be deeply concerned about your industry, the industry your company works in.

During a recent interview, however, Bob Miano, president and CEO of U.S. Operations for recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash, told me that with the technologies that various companies use, they, in effect, are forcing specialization upon IT pros long before they reach the CIO level. He said job listings come in with requirements that are very granular-these skills, this database, this language. And very often they want people who know more than one ERP (enterprise resource planning) system. He describes it as a limiting factor for changing jobs. Often coming up through the ranks is the only option:

In the past, there wasn't this wide breadth of technologies that you had to know. If you knew certain technologies, you could pretty much go to different industries. There was always some sort of bias, especially in the finance industry to have some sort of finance background, but there was a common denominator in technologies. Now there are different companies in different industries that go down different paths that really separate you. Today's technologist has to be much more specialized and you find yourself much more siloed. A person who's expert at something has a much more limited audience of where you can be placed. You can totally be an expert at a financial institution, but because another financial institution is not using that technology, you're not really that marketable there. It's much more focused.

ITBE blogger Mike Vizard, during a presentation at the Midmarket CIO Forum, made the case for specialization among CIOs this way:

People think you can run IT at a fruit company and then run IT at a chemical company. I'd argue that's insane. That's why business people begin to see IT as a utility. When I talk to CIOs, many of them have more loyalty to IT than to the industry they are working in. I think you add more value if you become a specialist. That's how you make IT integral to the business.

But does it make sense to require that specialization at a much lower pay grade? Ann has made the business case for IT generalists, citing companies such as Netflix, where developers build entire solutions on their own rather than focusing on one area of the business intelligence stack. But does it make sense for your career? I'd love to hear what you think in the comments below.

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