SA ICT Professionals: Jacks of many trades, masters of none?

by Prof Barry Dwolatzky

jack_of_all_trades_1200Did you know that people doing technical work in the South African ICT Sector carry out, on average, 6 different job functions?

 Over the past two years we at the JCSE have partnered with ITWeb to run an annual ICT Skills Survey. One of the most interesting results coming from this survey has been that South African ICT professionals are “jacks of many trades”. Respondents were given a list of the following 14 technical job functions:

  • Technical advice and consulting
  • Developing requirements and technical specifications
  • Estimation/Planning/Architecture
  • Design
  • Develop/Program/Build
  • Test/Quality assure
  • Configuration management
  • Operations (including DBA)
  • Information security
  • Maintain
  • Support/train
  • Manage/supervise technical activities/Team leadership
  • Coaching/ mentoring
  • Technical sales

They were asked which of these describe what they do. In both the 2008 and 2009 surveys almost all respondents indicated that they carried out a number of these tasks. 

A positive interpretation of this result is that South African ICT professionals are multi-skilled –  having a range of relevant skills and experiences. 

An alternative interpretation is that many people are spending part of their day carrying out tasks outside of their area of competence.  A skilled programmer may, for example, be doing jobs such as architecture, testing and training that require expertise that (s)he doesn’t have.  

I believe that both of these interpretations may be valid in specific circumstances. What do you think? What have you observed in your own work environments?

 We have just launched the 2010 Skills Survey (www.itweb.co.za/surveys/skills/2010).  While I’m certain that we will again see that SA ICT professionals are “Jacks of many trades” I’m keen to see if we can extract evidence as to whether they are “masters of all” or “masters of none”.

8 thoughts on “SA ICT Professionals: Jacks of many trades, masters of none?

  1. Talking for myself, I initially loved to focus just on one area. Problem is you are limiting yourself in terms of future opportunities.

    I eventually diversified and I’m glad I did. However, I will say that it’s not for every one and that is the problem. Many professionals are forced to fulfil roles they are not familiar with (even though they just happened to be the person knowing “something” about it when the work got dished out).

    Perhaps it’s because there is just not enough people with the “right” skills available? That’s my conclusion at least.

  2. It is true that many SA-IT Professionals are ‘Jacks of all trades’. One contributing factor is that most employers want multi skilled professionals. If you look at the job advertisments you’ll find that the job specs are asking for a lot of skills.

    On the other hand I think that is why we do not have lots of specialist in certain skills. We just have Professionals with a little bit of everything.

  3. From my personal experience, I’m glad I was given the opportunity to fulfil multiple roles. I think its helped me understand the business much better. And everytime the technolgy changed or new processes were required in a system, I could better apply myself in making the system work according to the business as close as possible. Often, you have to be quick to support business changes and new process and having the different skills helps to suggest various solutions. We’re not always fortunate to be pro-active in IT.

    As Nico has pointed out, it is certainly not for everybody. Some are just happy to continue in the same role with as little change as possible. It certainly has its challenges for managers trying to keep every one in a team motivated!

    I think we’re jack of all trades and masters of none. I also think that for small projects it will work fine, but for large scale projects, you need to get the experts in.

  4. My experience has lead me in thinking that there are a number of factors that causes this in IT. The size of the organisation and the size of the IT department plays a very important role. If the organisation is large there is normally an approach that is followed on how projects / work is handled and managed. This cascades to task level.

    Performance and time management also plays a part; if these are clear then IT staff will focus on what they have to do.

    In my experience I have also noted that once you identify yourself as working in the IT department then it is assumed that you can solve anything that is technology related.

    Lastly I think most of us in IT are always fascinated by challenging and new things thereby we are happy to be invited to assist.

  5. Is this at the heart of the “skills shortage” dilemma? Multi-skilled people performing a range of tasks are valuable resources and earn (relatively) high incomes. They have a vested interest in maintaining their value in the job market and so might not be willing to narrow their specialisation. Should they move on, their employer instinctively seeks someone with similar skills and experience, rather than replacing them with two or three more focussed “specialists”, and overlooks the opportunity to grow new talent into the enterprise.

  6. I really dont mind doing more than one function as part of my daily. It was always my goal to know the technical bit backwards, and know the business end better than the business users. Of course I am going to end up with training, testing, design and development. Programmers of a decade or two ago were all these things too.
    Maybe it is the IT’s self centredness which created the hordes of job descriptions, and additional positions, the ill effect that business are seriously looking at buying products in a hope to reduce their IT costs…. In the greater scheme of things people tend to brag about the size of their projects . . . to increase the size, add people (thus positions and budget), coz it looks great on a CV.

  7. We have countless discussions about how we should be masters in our problem domain, yet, upon closer inspection, we realise that teachings about factory worker mentality regarding software development never works.

    Be good at one thing and one thing only, and you’ll be regarded as a hero of the silo.

    This never works in the real world.

    If we were dealing with computers exclusively, and people as a minor side effect, this mentality would work.
    However, we’re not factory workers, we’re not in the factory deliverance mentality. We’re software developers, creating solutions for other people, who have expectations about how a solution should work, and most of the time, we have to diversify to get those results.

    Stop thinking in the production line, think in the artistic delivery line. What we’re being asked to produce doesn’t come out of a box. Neither should our mentality when providing a solution.

  8. Anybody in this online-forum, who is both willing and able to further his (or her) education in software engineering towards a Masters or Doctoral degree: please do not hesitate to contact me! I am currently seeking new postgraduate students for my software science research group at university. We have really interesting and relevant research topics!

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