Diversify your Experience as you would your Investment Portfolio!
You are the portfolio manager of your own career, with the potential to choose how to define your experience. However, specializing experience may be as limiting as a portfolio based on a single asset, for you never know when it could unexpectedly depreciate.
Is it bad to be an SME — Software Matter Expert?
Deeply understanding your niche is not detrimental to your career
Being one of the best people at what you do differentiates you. It gives you the edge needed to stand out and have the biggest impact in your domain. By focusing for many years on one type of work, you become great at it.
The problem with being an SME is when you become too narrowly focused in only one domain. Every other task could then seem scary, unapproachable and even impossible.
A case and point example can be having to obtain a budget for a technical project you are interested in. You may find yourself lacking the necessary skills to create a sales pitch for the project!
It’s true that there’s no better way to learn than by being challenged at your work-place. However, consider being more proactive about it, to strive to frequently upskill in hard and soft abilities. This way when an opportunity arises, you would be uniquely qualified to tackle it from many angles and can approach it with confidence.
What’s in it for me?
Benefiting from multi-domain expertise
The ability to combine ideas from multiple domains, even if at a high level, can allow us to make more informed decisions. This does not mean trying to take other people out of the picture — far from it. Instead it means being able to paint a better picture for the experts that you will engage with, alongside the opportunity to have an educated and informed conversation with them.
Avoiding overspecialization in a bespoke field
In the IT industry especially, some companies use programming languages or other technologies that they have invented, or make use of tools and frameworks that are not too wide-spread. By building your career around these, you may find yourself with a skillset that you cannot necessarily apply to other industries, or even different employers in your field.
Instead, do some research on what other companies are doing across industries and see what opportunities you could leverage to upskill — are there other tools/languages you could use for proofs of concept or benchmarking? Are there some soft skills you could integrate into your role? You might find that in diversifying your own skills, you could even create something to help your company and others going forward.
In most companies, you would need to undertake the responsibilities of the next level before officially being promoted, as doing so would prove that you already have the skills to qualify for a promotion. To achieve this effectively and without prompting, be proactive! Chase opportunities outside your comfort zone and leverage insight from your seniors in figuring out what those opportunities should be. It is likely that the more senior the position, the more you will need to sharpen soft skills like marketing and communication and even some hard skills like analytics.
No matter what you choose to upskill in, ensure you stand out not only enough to get to the next level, but to be distinguishable even once you get there.
How to accomplish it?
Hackathons — or similar events
These are time-boxed events — usually a few days in length — where people from multiple industries come together, form ad-hoc teams and develop a product end to end (generally a proof of concept) and present it to the other participants. Sometimes, these teams even have a small business plan.
I want to emphasize that the key here is the diversity of participants — they come from all walks of life and from different industries. Though hackathons do have a connotation of being techy in nature, you do not have to be in the IT industry to participate in one. In fact, some of the best hackathon projects have come from diverse teams of individuals!.
Some companies will occasionally conduct hackathons. These internal events are a great opportunity for upskilling. Furthermore, it is likely your company has marketing departments and deals with all aspects of its business, so working with participants from other departments would be a great way to expand your network and learn about other domains.
If you already take part in such events in your own company, try once a year to branch out and participate in external ones!
Don’t downplay yourself by thinking you are not skilled enough to participate in these events. They are always fun, and everyone is there to learn something new and meet people.
Join the party!
Don’t shy away from wearing that extra hat
Building up skills only when you need them can be expensive and risky from many points of view. For example, if you have to convince upper management to fund your project and you don’t have previous experience with marketing the value of your projects, you may find yourself in quite a pickle. You will still learn, but perhaps there would have been other opportunities through which you could have fine-tuned your approach and even increased your chances of success. Pursuing these opportunities beforehand would mean that even if you failed, it would be less costly than upskilling only when you really need it and failing then.
Stretch goal: try to start your own company
You would have a lot of freedom in this space, especially as a student. Running a company is extremely difficult, but doing so as a student could have close to no risk, but many benefits even and especially if it fails. It’s a great opportunity to juggle many roles, wear many hats, and upskill both in soft and hard abilities.
No one will do it for you. Make sure you are a good portfolio manager for your career. Do not take any rash decisions, and do not miss on all opportunities available. Make both risky and stable decisions in order to no expose yourself too much to potential loss.
Best of luck!