So, your boss sits you down at the start of your appraisal and tells you it is time for you to specialise or generalise – what are you going to do? Think carefully as your next few words are likely to label you and guide your entire career (CIO: Specialists vs. Generalists). Outside of work, mention you work in the technology field to family, friends or complete strangers and the immediate conclusion drawn is you must be a generalist and out come the computer questions – my computer will not start up, what is the best anti-virus software, how do I transfer my audio cassettes to digital, and so on. It is somewhat akin to asking a mechanic to design an engine or a design engineer to recommend a set of brake pads.
Are you a generalist or a specialist and does it really matter?
At some point you are likely to be asked if you are a specialist or a generalist; so what are they?
A specialist is someone who focuses on a specific area of expertise, say for example software development in C# or SQL Database Administration.
– but what use are they outside their comfort zone?
A generalist is someone who covers many bases – they can develop software, administer a database or set up a local area network infrastructure
– but can they do it well enough?
There is also the notion (Specialist or Generalist?) that generalists are good at identifying problems whereas specialists focus on solving particular problems and that does seem to fit with the doctor analogy described later, however it doesn’t quite feel right to me.
In small companies with few resources it can be of great benefit to be a technology generalist whereas in larger companies it may pay to be a specialist. In my mind at least these are not mutually exclusive roles but at some point you may be asked to make the transition from one to the other or plant your flag firmly in one camp – this is not an easy task and needs much soul searching. This happened to me several times in previous roles and I have never really felt comfortable being boxed off into one area, particularly as I live and breathe technology.
Could you describe yourself as both generalist and specialist?
It is possible to be a generalist with a particular specialist interest or be a specialist but stay on top of things as a generalist. For example, I would describe myself as a software developer and a technologist and as such a generalist with specialist skills. I specialise my programming in Cobol, PHP, C#, but I also generalise in Java Script, C++ and ASP.NET; I also specialize in managing a network infrastructure based on Windows 2003 with Terminal Services and Virtualisation but I did my certification as a Novell CNE in order to maintain a general view of server technology.
We are affected by our environment, by the role in which we are employed, by the needs of our customers and by our own unique interests. Either way, the articles we read, the social networks we mix in and the general conversations we have may indicate a particular leaning towards specialist or generalist. I do believe the things we do must be enjoyable and interesting for us to become successful – otherwise what is the point of doing them?
How can I tell if I am a generalist or a specialist?
Look through your project reports and task lists. Think about the things you are asked by your customers. Write out a list of things you do. Which items are you drawn to and which fall to the bottom of the list. Of the things you have done which have given you the most satisfaction and which have you engaged most with? When trying to identify a particular specialist area there is some insight in this article.
Are specialists better than generalists?
Some may say the skills of a generalist can never match the skills of a specialist but is this really a fair or even logical assessment? The two are different things and it is almost like saying a pencil cannot match a pen without really saying anything about the application or problem to be resolved. If I feel unwell I go to a general practitioner who more often than not will resolve the problem; if that problem cannot be resolved then I get referred to a consultant (in our example a more specialised generalist but a generalist nonetheless). If we take being specialist to its ultimate conclusion then the only real specialists are quantum physicists and everyone else has to be a generalist. The universe is a generalist and it’s doing pretty well so far.
A good debate, and food for thought, is given in The Never-Ending Debate of Specialist v. Generalist where a comment "the more you know, the more you find out you don’t know" certainly rang true with me. Although the article, seemingly unintentionally, leans heavily towards the specialist route it gives some good observations. Another interesting view is in Become a specialist at being a generalist that offers up a number of recommendations including Stay up-to-date with your area of generalization, Know what to explore and what to ignore, Be critical of new technologies, Visualize the results of all new pursuits and endeavours and Don’t over-generalize. The last point is quite important – as over generalising could spread your time and skills too thinly as the saying goes – in my case there are some technologies I don’t get involved, some because they simply do not interest me or because they would take up too much time.
Another food for thought offered up by Jared Spool is the idea of a compartmentalist – saying that a specialist focuses primarily on a particular areas whereas a compartmentalist focuses only on one particular area.
We love giving people labels and placing each other into arbitrary groups don’t we? Assigning someone as a specialist or a generalist is no different. The important thing to remember is that context is key – we are all specialists in some areas and generalists in other areas. When choosing your path think long and hard about your choices and whether you lean towards being a specialist or a generalist – the decision may be made for you or you may be forced to make the decision on your own – either way be guided by what you enjoy doing and what you feel comfortable with.
As the only IT person in our organisation I need to be a generalist – unless of course we decide to outsource everything but that would be a completely different kettle of fish. Force me into a corner and make me choose software development or technology management and you may as well ask me if I prefer hopping on my left leg or right.
Which leg (or other appendage) do you prefer to hop on?