A lot of us know the famous quote « jack-of-all-trades, master of none ». This is meant to characterize professionals who are good enough to apply for jobs in different roles and industries but don’t have the deep expertise required to hold a senior role in any of them.
Being a jack-of-all-trade isn’t such a bad thing
As young professionals, most of us are bombarded and influenced with information and advertising about many industries and careers that are attractive from the outside looking in: social media marketing, IT, Fintech, retail, etc.
Therefore, the people that make an early difference in their careers are often those who have clarity about who they are and what they want to become as soon as they have graduated. This is far from being a given to every young graduate. As a result, they usually apply for starter positions in companies that have an established reputation or a leadership program for them.
In return, those employers usually generate the “jack-of-all-trade” (Let’s say JOAT to make it shorter) in them.
However, there are two types of JOAT and one of them is more profitable than the other in the long-term.
What kind of “jack” are you?
Actually, there are 2 kinds of JOAT that needs to be distinguished to understand my line of thought: vertical jack and horizontal jack.
Vertical jack is deeply rooted in one industry or one product⁄service but can talk to you about its ecosystem for days. Vertical jack has a lot of hard skills. Horizontal jack has a lot of soft skills. His skills are transferable throughout industries, products and services.
Horizontal jacks, in the context of ERP implementations, are usually project managers, team leaders, solution architects, salespeople or PMO.
I feel like I am a Vertical Jack. Does it mean that I am “stuck” in one thing?
No, you are not stuck if you are a vertical jack! Far from it! There is a quote that says: “one inch wide, one mile deep”. It means that you are one of the best if not the best practitioner of your craft in your industry or your target market. You will build products and deliver services in a niche market that you master. You will spend a lot of time and energy honing a craft that only a few can do at your level. U are so good that you actually become a JOAT in your niche! Your advantage is that that thanks to the “halo effect”, your excellence in one thing will provide you the credibility required in case you want to drift to other projects.
Michael Jordan and Usain Bolt
Michael Jordan was allowed into a Major League Baseball team not only because he was good but also because he IS Michael Jordan. An average basketball player who wants to join a baseball team would be told: “Wait a minute, you have the CV of a basketball player. Why would we hire you?’. We can see that halo effect today with Usain Bolt. The eight-time Olympic champion has always dreamed of becoming a professional football player. He has been given trials at one of the best clubs in the world: Borussia Dortmund. Do you really think that an average practitioner in any other sport would have been given the chance at 31-years old to train with Borussia Dortmund? My point is that being a great vertical jack provides you with opportunities in other fields! An exceptional winner always gets the benefit of the doubt when he starts something new! So vertical jack, which niche skill or niche market do you want to be the Usain Bolt of? In ERP implementations, vertical jacks would be functional consultants who master a specific ERP module or process, technical architects, developers, etc.
Insight into the Horizontal Jack
Professionals who navigate their careers horizontally are great for big organizations. They can fill in many spots, are very adaptable and have most of the time strong soft skills. Being horizontal (or touche-à-tout in French) is an advantage when you want to grow in senior leadership positions that do not require deep technical expertise.
Young graduates who make “leadership programs” during which they spend some months into different departments of the same organization develop a horizontal JOAT attitude. A project manager, a team lead, a PMO team member in an ERP implementation project are often horizontal JOAT.
The advantage of the horizontal jack is its employability: he or she will always fit a good part of many job descriptions. They rarely run out of potential employers requiring their skills. But there is a reason why I prefer the vertical JOAT: horizontal jack have a shorter lifespan.
When you develop a wide array of skills, unless you get into leadership positions it is difficult for me to keep being excited by going “horizontal” with my career.
As soon as you start a management role in a project or in a company, you will start to enhance the soft skills required to succeed in those positions and will slowly veer away from being a horizontal JOAT to become a more vertical JOAT in one or a few soft skills: coaching, team building, time management, etc.
Being a jack-of-all-trades is not a curse
At the beginning of my career, I was told several times that it is crucial to master one SAP module from end-to-end in order to build my “personal brand”. When you are a starter in a big technology company, it is usually more difficult to build a personal brand solely based on your exceptional soft skills. You have to gain practical experience and have some success stories behind you. Soft skills become more evident after having passed the hard skills test.
During the first six years of my career, I have had to switch SAP modules from project to project: from MM to CS-ISU to PP-PI and then SD-CS. After six years, I had the perfect jack-of-all-trades profile, I touched a bit of everything but never went deep into anything.
And as I was inflicted by the “imposter syndrome”, I refrained from calling myself an expert in any of those modules.
However, there is one thing that I didn’t realize at the time: SAP itself is a niche skill! And to have the best combination of vertical and horizontal jack, is to be a jack-of-all-trades within a specific niche.
How to make the best of the vertical and horizontal Jack
Be very narrow and vertical in your product or service offering and at the same time quickly become horizontal WITHIN that offering.
As a result, you bring something very specific to the market meanwhile you can be very innovative in the way that you will deliver your product or your service.
If I come back to my own example in the ERP consulting industry: having deep SAP knowledge is a niche skill.
However, being an expert in different modules and use your soft skills to deliver in an innovative way is a good way to be a jack-of-all-trades!
PS: the picture at the top of the article is showing a “Jane of all trades”!
 Project Management Office: it’s the office that handles all the administrative side of the ERP implementation.
 MM : Materials Management. This is the module that manages purchasing and inventory
 CS-ISU : Customer Services and Industry Solution-Utilities. IS-U is used by the Utility companies (Hydro Québec for example). Customer Services handles the after sales services of a company.
 PP-PI : Production Planning for Process Industries. Module very much in use in the manufacturing industry
 SD-CS : Sales and Distribution + Customer Service.