Is It Better to Be a Generalist or a Specialist?
Microsoft's decision to make its Siri-like assistant Cortana available not only on Microsoft's OS but also on iOS and Android is seen as part of Microsoft's cross-platform initiative. So is Microsoft expecting its developers to not only specialize in Windows-based skills but also to have a general outlook towards cross-mobility development? Does this indicate that the tech world now prefers generalists more than specialists?
In his book The Hard Things About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz makes the case for embracing specialization as a means towards scaling an organization. He believes the need to embrace specialization is less for startups than it is for when organizations start to grow:
In startups, everybody starts out as jack-of-all-trades. For example, engineers write code, manage the build, test the product, and, increasingly, deploy it and operate it. As the company grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to add engineers, because learning curve starts to get super-steep. Getting a new engineer up to speed starts to become more difficult than doing the work. At this point you need to specialize.
The messaging app WhatsApp was in the news recently for reaching the one billion download mark on the Android platform. Interestingly, WhatsApp has been able to achieve this scale while keeping its Android team to just four people. Contrary to the earlier example, this case speaks in favor of possibly not needing to specialize even when the organization scales.
In his article "Real world needs? Specialists or generalists," Dr. Yasser Al-Saleh provides an interesting perspective about the value of generalists. Generalists, who tend to know a little about a lot of different topics instead of a lot about one specific topic are also seen as the proponents of interdisciplinary learning.
In his book The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation, Frans Johansson says this about the power of interdisciplinary learning:
Why do so many world changing insights come from people with little or no related experience? Charles Darwin was a geologist when he proposed the theory of evolution. And it was an astronomer who finally explained what happened to the dinosaurs.
Given their wide focus, generalists can possibly innovate more. They subscribe to the notion of creativity put forward by Steve Jobs when he once said, "Creativity is just connecting things."
Today's world can be characterized by the catchphrase VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). If there is one thing that’s constant in technology, it’s that the technology landscape changes dramatically, which is evident from the way the Gartner Hype Cycle is defined. If anything, this cycle proves that technologies have a limited shelf life, which can mean that skills and specialization also have a shelf life.
In his book The Definitive Drucker, Peter Drucker mentions a concept called overspecialization, which knowledgeable people tend to subscribe to because there is so much to know in any particular field. Given the nature of the technology world, both generalist and specialist attributes can help, but overspecialization may make it difficult for engineers to part ways and learn something new when a technology hype fades.
What do you think?