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Horizontal Knowledge and Vertical Knowledge in the IT World

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IT Career Planning is an area that all IT workers must take seriously.  This article and podcast discuss one area of such planning.  The difference between Horizontal and Vertical growth in your technical career.

What does it mean to say Vertical or Horizontal in this context?  Horizontal Knowledge is to know pure technology while Vertical Knowledge is knowing how your organization uses and deploys technology.  In other words, knowing where all the bodies are buried and how your organization has evolved as a technological organism is Vertical.  Product knowledge, IEEE specifications, protocols and Best Practices--are Horizontal.

Which is better?  That depends on who is asking.  If you are an IT manager looking at your staff--company specific knowledge is far more valuable.  If you are an IT manager looking at a potential new hire--raw technology wins.  The  question to ask is--where do you see yourself?  If you are confident in your position--then your vertical knowledge is your security.  If you think you may need to seek a new position someday--and you most likely will--then you cannot ignore horizontal knowledge.

As someone moves into management their range of responsibility broadens to a point where they are managing projects or technologies about which they have limited pure knowledge.  This is natural and unavoidable.  As you go up through the hierarchy--you do so vertically.  More and more your skills are about how your organization does things--as compared to "how things are best done."  This makes you more valuable to your current organization but less valuable to other organizations--unless you find a new horizontal.  Often that horizontal is management itself.  Then you become Vertical technologically--but Horizontal in the field of management.  You are still keeping a horizontal approach in your chosen direction.

If you are more driven by the bits and bytes of things--how your organization uses a given technology, such as Websphere, Networking, Servers, Operating Systems or Databases, is indeed critical.  But do you keep current with Best Practices in your field?  Are you able to say that you know the raw technology well enough to walk into a new situation and perform well?  Or, are you completely steeped in your organization's processes and designs?  Be honest with yourself.  Have you lost interest in how it "could" be done because that is not the way it is done where you work?  If so, then you are growing predominantly Vertically.  Failure to grow Horizontally while growing more and more Vertical--leads to trouble.  Such workers--if they lose their job--have more trouble finding a new one.  New employers want plasticity and a strong foundation in what is happening now.  Someone who is strong in one approach and inexperienced in the rest may be less desirable than someone with current raw knowledge but less experience.  Such people are moldable--and happy with far less money than you are likely to be. 

Control of your career means conscious decisions about these choices--rather than going with the flow.  Do you love the technology itself?  Does it challenge you and excite you?  Are you really interested in the details of how it works?  If so, it may be that you need to keep away from management.  Not because you cannot do it or are unsuited to it.  But because you are more suited to the bits and bytes and the management path will take you away from that.  This seems like a rather obvious point--but it is not.  Management is viewed as "higher" and better.  For a person not to move "up"--can seem as if you are stuck and not growing in your career.  That is a hurtful and pointless way of thinking.  If you know what makes you happy--keep to that.  However--that does not mean that you are through.  Manage your growth.  Keep Horizontal.  Try to grow at a 45 degree angle--increasing your knowledge of your organization's ways--but making equal time for growing pure knowledge of your technical field.  Your organization may not want your input and that can be frustrating--but if you have to move on it will be your lifeline.

 Follow Barry Koplowitz on Twitter @bkoplowitz



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