Generalists vs Specialists - What is your career path?

Dinakaran Sankaranarayanan


Generalists vs Specialists - What is your career path?

Over the last 14 years, there has been an eternal struggle with the ever-changing technology landscape over whether to become a Generalist or Specialist. There are no easy answers to this ever-burning question. Depending on the context, both options seem to make sense from different vantage points. I happened to read across this post by Vani Kola on Generalist vs Specialists

After reading about the post, I went down the rabbit hole of Generalists vs Specialists.

I came across this book by David Epstein, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” and it got me thinking more about this. There are different schools of thoughts. Jack of All Trades vs Specialize in One Single Thing but being the best in it. And the author explains the idea with the example of the career trajectory of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.

Who has the edge - Generalists or Specialists?

In short, Generalist picks up new technologies super fast. Adapt at picking up new trends and shift course. Generalists are essential when a company is looking at innovation and strategy, while Specialists are essential to execute the strategy and deliver. Both are very much essential in the larger scheme of things, but choosing a rewarding career may be a bit hard for Generalists.

Sridhar Vembu , CEO of Zoho has recently tweeted the following in a similar context and has favoured Generalists over Specialists. It is an interesting point of view. Check his tweets here and here

“5/ Here is the basic problem with the second doctrine “Specialize”: how does an organization develop a NEW core competence? Toyota branched out from its core competence of textile looms to automobiles. Amazon branched out froeCommercece to AWS. Zoho Corp has done that too.”

“6/ We used to have intense debates on “core competence” at Zoho and I rejected that doctrine and declared “Our business domain is whatever we take a deep interest in”. That’s the only way an organization can evolve to add new competencies, by tinkering with new ideas.”

And the debate is now progressing to different interpretations based on the context again. We have a generalizing specialist.

A generalizing specialist is someone who:

  • Has one or more technical specialities (e.g. Java programming, Project Management, Database Administration, …).
  • Has at least a general knowledge of software development.
  • Has at least a general knowledge of the business domain in which they work.
  • Actively seeks to gain new skills in both their existing specialities as well as in other areas, including both technical and domain areas.

Idea of T-Shaped Leader

Another trend is of the need for T-Shaped Leader. T-Shaped leader or employee is both a niche specialist and a generalist. Here the horizontal bar of ‘T’ represents the gamut of general knowledge and soft skills the individual has, while the vertical stem of ‘T’ symbolises his/her depth of hard technical skills

What the future holds?

Two types of people will own the future: Generalising-Specialists and Specialising-Generalists.

Imagine you hired a Specialist who was great at one particular function, and over time you found out he or she was also good at handling a broader range of duties, and eager to grow? You’d be thrilled, and you’d want to work with that person a long time. Now imagine you had in your organisation a Generalist who wore multiple hats and could handle a range of duties, but who also spent time acquiring greater proficiency in certain specific skills? You’d be equally thrilled, and you’d want to work with that person a long time.

Who has better job prospects ? Generalists will find it harder and harder to get hired, while Specialists are under threat from software and robots.

And for a Developer, what does this mean?

Being a Specialist can be rewarding, but being a Generalist is a necessity. You truly do need a bit of both; just remember not to sacrifice general knowledge to focus on your preference. Security, Machine Learning, and Dev/Tech Ops are the top 3 topics I believe have strong merit at the moment, but that list is certainly not exhaustive!

I’m still un-decided on the whole debate , but the whole conservation and ensuing discussion has made me open to this idea of what I really want to become ? A Generalist or Specialist.