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

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

at a crossroads

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."

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 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."

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