Being a specialized generalist

Published Nov 09, 2017

Specializing, particularly in tech, offers many advantages. It makes it easier to set goals and focus self-development efforts. It also allows for simpler and clearer positioning, which generally leads to more contracts and higher compensation. Many specialists excel in their area of expertise, and with time, become highly valuable assets.

On the other hand, many specialities become obsolete as technology moves forward. Design methodologies, programming languages, and development platforms fade into obscurity as years go by. Furthermore, many creative people have trouble forcing themselves to specialize in a specific area. They are curious by nature and they love learning about and tinkering with many different concepts and technologies.

The truth is that for some people specialization ends up being a blessing, and for others — a prison.

In a Forbes article George Bradt writes,

What’s the difference between a generalist and a specialist? A generalist knows less and less about more and more until eventually he or she knows nothing about everything. A specialist knows more and more about less and less until eventually he or she knows everything about nothing.

Specializing pros

  • it allows for clear and understandable positioning strategy
  • it builds a laser focused portfolio with a clear value proposition
  • it often lends superior credibility
  • it generally leads to higher compensation

Specializing cons

  • your area of specialty might drop in value or become obsolete
  • it can lead to career boredom
  • it can induce tunnel vision and make it difficult to see the bigger picture
  • it decreases your flexibility as an employee and/or entrepreneur

Striking the right balance between specializing and indulging your curiosity is crucial to having a healthy and fulfilling career. Learning about many different things is great, but not if it constantly distracts you from your central goals.

My path

At the beginning of my career I was learning how to code and client-side web development was all I cared about. After creating a few uninspiring websites I started learning about visual design and typography.

When I started working on more complex web applications, I wanted to make them compelling and intuitive, so I spent a lot of time learning about user experience.

I soon grew tired of constantly having to ask friends for help, so I put some effort in figuring out server-side development and basic system administration.

After creating Movieo, I wanted to share it with as many people as possible and grow the userbase so I read books on user research, conversion and retention optimization, user acquisition, and more. I successfully applied that knowledge and today, with a zero dollar marketing budget, Movieo is used by more than 100,000 people every month.

Now that’s all great, but who does the market value more: an expert javascript developer specialized in complex custom-built web applications, or a “web guy” who does design, development, deployment, and marketing? (hint: it’s the former)

You can have your cake and eat it too

My solution was to become a a specialized generalist: a person who’s an expert in one area, and skilled in many others. Tim Brown, the author of Change by Design, writes about the multidisciplinary specialist who is able to look at problems from different perspectives.

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T–they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That’s what you’re after at this point–patterns that yield ideas.

Client-side web development is my bread and butter, and it is the reason why most people hire me. It’s been a constant throughout my career, and it represents what I love the most. Having all these other skills is extremely useful though, and most people who I work with end up benefiting from them. But most importantly, being knowledgeable in these other areas makes me a better developer.

In conclusion

Specializing offers many advantages, but that doesn’t mean that you should forego other interests. Feel free to indulge your curiosity and learn about different things, as long as you regularly invest enough time into your mastery. It’s the thing that gets you invited to the party, and you can always rely on it when times get tough.

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