A generalist is born when a specialist becomes bored

Daniel Irvine on September 15, 2019

Header photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash I’m a full-stack developer, which means I’m a generalist. I believe that generalism... [Read Full]
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Now this is a remarkable article. I wholeheartedly agree with what you said. Great read!

As in the title, it is indeed fallacious to believe that "specialists are always better than generalists". My main takeaway from this is that a generalist surpasses a specialist when they can (eagerly) apply the knowledge of the many different paradigms, thinking processes, and mindsets from other technologies in a constructive manner when tackling problems for another technology. That, to me, is the kind of outside-the-box thinking that is always worth striving for.

 

I partially agree with your points.

"A generalist was a specialist at some point."
It's true but when you choose to become a generalist, you spend a lot of time on different technologies, you will never dive deep as a specialist. This may not be a problem for easier domain like mobile or frontend development but for cutting edge skills like deep learning, compiler, etc, you have to put much more time to master them, so become a specialist would be a better choice.

 

Being a generalist doesn’t bar you
from being a specialist.

Compilers are something I know (a little) about. Here are two examples of prominent generalists who work in the field of compilers.

Anders Hejlsberg designed/architected Turbo Pascal, Delphi, C# and TypeScript.

Rich Hickey was a .NET specialist before he created Clojure.

We’d normally view them as specialists but wouldn’t you also consider them generalists?

You might never get the chance to hire Hejlsberg or Hickey into your team, but there are many, many developers out there who have the same problem-solving mindset.

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that if you’re a novice developer trying to choose between generalising or specialising, then don’t worry - because it’s a false dichotomy. Just do whichever you feel is best for you at the moment. There will be always be more time later to shift gear.

 

Excellent article! I've been in the business since I was 18 years old (now closing on 40) and I am proud to call myself a generalist.

As you say, by no means did I start as a generalist. I picked a speciality and did that exclusively for a while. Then I found something else interesting and did that for a while (years).

I always cringe when I hear "Jack of all trades. Master of none".

Specialists are often referred to as "T profile" where the "T" signifies where the Y axis indicates experience and the X axis different types of speciality. If that's true, I probably identify with an "M profile".

But who's to say what is specialised, and what's generalised. Technology as a field is huge and even "full stack engineers" don't know all backend/frontend/database/app stacks. At some point they found something in the layers that worked for them.

Right now I'd say I'm specialised in terms of "React, Go, SQL databases & Linux". In that particular stack, I might be "full stack". But that all depends on where I'm working at the time.

So, to sum up. I don't think it's white or black, or even bad or good. A good team needs to fill different roles. Some are laser-focused on one thing and others are more broad.

 

Thank you for this. I really like the description of an "M profile", it's a great way to put it. I also agree with your conclusion. A lot of it is contextual. Right now my team needs me to be the Rails backend dev because no one else has that skill. So although I think of myself as a generalist, I'm needed on this team for my Ruby knowledge.

 

I do the same. A month ago I was doing TypeScript and React because that’s what the company needed resources on.

Right now the need is backend services and then I do Go.

Doesn’t matter much to me. As long as I can deliver value 🙂

 

Wonderful article, thank you
I'd love to quote a paragraph from the book 'Thinking fast and slow', by Daniel kahneman:

The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes. In other words, people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.

Another book that goes in depth about the subject is: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Check it out

 
 

Ideally you want:
Wide and shallow, with some surprising depths.

And those depths allow for going sideways at problems, because there are few 'new' problems. If you can solve it in one language, that experience will apply, perhaps to a lesser degree, to a different one.

 

Thank You!

I've had the pleasure to be a generalist as well.I can completely identify with a lot of your comments especially around JavaScript.

Having a greater variety of tools to work with, simply makes you a better problem solver

Thinking broadly about a problem, versus specific limitations by using a single approach. Allows me to find a better tool for the job.

 

I'm glad I'm not the only one with this experience of JavaScript :)

 

For my fourth language, to my horror I ended up working with JavaScript. I wasn’t particularly fond of JavaScript. A messy language, which I had to climb down to after scaling the wondrous heights of Clojure and ClojureScript.

This.

People are doing wonders using JS, no doubt about it. Coming from languages like C# or Python, JS seems to be too messy. I guess this is the actual problem that JS frameworks are trying to solve.

A super awesome article @d_ir . Thanks for sharing your experience!

 

Daniel great read. In other times, the generalist would be called a jack of all trades. This described my job history prior to taking the tech plunge. Being a generalist is not for everyone but some do thrive in that kind of environment. I am an "older" beginner, who having lots of life experience has found that specialism does not necessarily work for me. I enjoy being the generalist and all that it has to offer. If I find a topic that is great interest, then i will specialize in it until it no longer holds my interest. Is it okay if I pass this article along to some of my non-tech friends?

 
 

Never thought about it that way, but it's a great point. I think a lot of people follow a similar path: picking up languages or technology along the way until you look back and "surprise!" you're a generalist :)

“React…?! Facebook?! What gave these pesky developers the right to walk all over four decades of GUI development best practice?!”

Ha! I teach people React, and that's a completely accurate depiction of what a bunch of people feel at least once while learning it :) It's so universal!

In my case, I'll also add that I became a generalist because I didn't want to give up the "old" stuff that I knew so well. I like all the new stuff a lot - but all the stuff I already know works so well - might as well keep up with that too!

 

Thanks for this, my life experience has told me it's better to be a generalist!

I left school and became a builders labourer and touched on many things, after I spent 3 years been a roofer which was good but repetitive.

Later I got a opportunity to move to another country, there wasn't much work as a roofer but if I started thinking of all other trades there was plenty!

Stop thinking like a roofer there is carpentry work, then there is plastering, plumbing and then I got to think about concrete and swimming pools and all the infrastructure that goes into it!

Later I moved to France and met a British builder who had brothers all specialised in their trades and very very good but like he said he can do all their jobs just they can do it that little bit better!

Because of my experience it was me hiding him on swimming pool work and sharing information back and forth was great for growing my mind, the little tricks I learned from here are invaluable.

I'm rambling the point is a jack of all trades and master of none has always been more useful to him.

I can do most things that to into a house and picking the right tool for the right job has helped me look at programming projects with a real sensible head!!

Me a specialist? Na I can work on a house, swimming pool, fix various power tools, can have a look at your car, small repairs in white goods and now getting into programming and still a clear view of everything I need to still learn.

My point again is been able to do a lot leads to more opportunities and a more open mind which leads to better knowledge sharing!!

I'll shut up now!!

😂😂

 

Quite true. I also started (and am still on) the MS train - VB6, then C#, and I can say it's that more important to learn as much as you can in tech, if you have the energy/passion for it. I have at some point used concepts learnt in Nodejs on C#, creating a http server, and provided an out-of-the-box solution to the problem at hand to the amazement of the team. Learning different languages/paradigms gives your mind a broader playing ground when formulating a solution

 

Not to zoom right into a tree instead of the forest, but I'm really curious about something.

"But many developers, engineering managers and even CTOs think that generalists are a risk and that what software teams really need are specialists."

It's been a long time since I've applied for programming jobs or looked at their job descriptions, but I know that many of them these days call for "full stack" whatever. And, from what I recall, most job descriptions used to have an entire alphabet soup full of "required" and "nice-to-have" languages, frameworks, databases, etc.

I spent a number of years as an IT management consultant, so, actually talking to managers and CTOs about their org charts, job descriptions, etc. And the most en vogue thing in the mid-2010s was "T-shaped people" or "generalizing specialists" who maybe had one deep area of knowledge but then could adapt to and be plugged into any team or situation.

So I guess my question is, has there been a sea change in the last 3-4 years? Are hiring managers and leaders now saying, "I want devs that know C# and absolutely nothing else?" Like, is that some kind of software management fad, now, to look for people that have only one programming language/framework on their resume?

If so, that seems absurdly short-sighted.

 

Loved the article! I can related a lot with your story! What I usually say is: at the same moment you define yourself you are at the same time limiting yourself. I like to be open to whatever and this just keeps expanding my mind more and more!

 

It's better to rebrand you as multi-specialist, being a generalist is very dangerous even for the greatest ones ;)

Generalist vs Specialist

 

Well, when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail

 

When you have a ruby, everything looks like a rail.

 
 
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