Depth of Knowledge in IT Is Not Enough

What makes one IT professional more valuable than another? Valued IT professionals are probably experts at the field they chose to pursue, be it Python programming, Windows system administration, Cisco network management, Unix forensics, and so on. As people gain experience, they may decide to expand into other fields within IT, and presumably be more valuable than colleagues who have only mastered a single field. Some might decide to focus on a single field to get to know it really, really well, using their depth of knowledge as a competitive advantage.

Those are necessary steps to get started in the career and to keep up with the industry, but how can one stand out? Merely knowing the technical details pertaining to one’s field isn’t enough. Consider the following excerpt from Seth Godin’s book Linchpin:

“The shared knowledge of the Internet make domain knowledge on its own worth significantly less than it used to be. Today, if all you have to offer is that you know a lot of reference book information, you lose, because the Internet knows more than you do.”

Simply knowing the syntax of commands to configure a Cisco firewall isn’t enough… We need something more. Here’s Seth Godin’s perspective on what makes professionals truly valuable:

“Depth of knowledge combined with good judgment is worth a lot. Depth of knowledge combined with diagnostic skills or nuanced insight is worth a lot, too.”

How does one learn good judgment or acquire nuanced insight? That’s where experience comes in. Experience starts by learning how to follow instructions, such as the steps for locking down the configuration of a Linux box. Next, one must learn to make judgement calls in situations where there is no clear manual to follow, such as:

  • Which of the processes that look normal might be malicious?
  • Should we wait to test a critical security patch or apply it right away?
  • Which web browser should we deploy on our workstations?
  • Should we build our own application or buy one off-the-shelf?
  • Should we fix a security vulnerability if it will delay the product launch?

Furthermore, insights and creative solutions can come by drawing upon the knowledge outside of the IT industry, such as history, psychology, economics, etc.

The IT industry has reached the level where by merely having baseline technical skills an IT professional doesn’t stand out. Those pros who have mastered the art of making decisions without having the benefit of detailed instructions are the ones who have the competitive edge.

If you’re an IT professional, embrace your interests outside of IT. At your job, look for opportunities to work on projects or tasks that give you some freedom to make choices. If you’ve already had that experience, be sure to describe it during your interview when looking for a job. If you’re a hiring manager, don’t merely validate that the candidate has the depth of knowledge you seek: also assess how the person will act when he needs to demonstrate good judgment or nuanced insight.

More thoughts along these lines: Stop Relying on Your Resume.

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About the Author

Lenny Zeltser is a seasoned business and technology leader with extensive information security experience. He builds innovative endpoint defense solutions as VP of Products at Minerva Labs. He also trains incident response and digital forensics professionals at SANS Institute. Lenny frequently speaks at industry events, writes articles and has co-authored books. He has earned the prestigious GIAC Security Expert designation, has an MBA from MIT Sloan and a Computer Science degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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