February 11th, 2008Generalist or Specialist: Why not Both?
For a while I’ve been planning to write on this subject. The question of whether going broad or going deep into a subject area has always been present in my life. In this post I will scratch some of my current thoughts on the subject. Feedback and other opinions are welcome!
My parents always told me that I couldn’t be good at everything. But they’ve always been very supportive on everything I decided to do. Being a great musician, magician, and programmer was not an easy task, but that never stopped me from trying. But then I read something funny that became a good argument for a while…
The Specialist Paradox
An specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, ultimately knowing everything….. about nothing!
That even made me review my resumé to remove any reference to the word “specialist” and include the word “generalist”. :-)
Swinging the pendulum
But I forgot that you can always change the argument to take the other extreme and come up with a “Generalist Paradox”. And then I watched Kent Beck’s keynote speech last year at XP 2007 about Ease at Work. We are always trying to be the best, but then we realize how bad we are and start thinking we are the worst. A great lesson that I took from his words is that while swinging that pendulum back and forth, we never stop to think that neither of those extremes are good. Being at ease is trying to find how to stay in the middle. In our discussion, the extremes of the pendulum would be the common view that generalists are best at defining the problem or goal and specialists are best at solving the problem or “executing the plan”:
While researching about this subject, I learned that you have similar concepts in Biology (highlights are mine):
A generalist species is able to thrive in a wide variety of environmental conditions and can make use of a variety of different resources (for example, a heterotroph with a varied diet). Specialist species can only thrive in a narrow range of environmental conditions and/or have a limited diet. Organisms do not fit neatly into either group, however. Some species are highly specialized, others less so, while some can tolerate many different environments. In other words, there is a continuum from highly specialized to broadly generalist species.
We can leverage that same idea, letting go the “Us vs. Them” argument and starting to think about generalist and specialist as complementary skills. David Armano has already suggested changing the “or” to “and”, but I would dare taking it one step further…
It’s all about context
Specialty is contextual. Anyone in my family would consider myself a specialist in programming and software development. But they don’t have a clue that Computer Science is a broad area with so many fields. Some interest me more than others, so I could say I’m a generalist at that level. But since my interest in software development and Agile Methods is greater than other fields, one could say I’m a specialist, although I wouldn’t consider myself an expert at anything :-) I can see the XP principle of Self-Similarity applied here. I think that the above picture is just a simplification of reality. There are some dots underneath the surface that you can only connect if you specialize a little bit. And I would say that the same fractal structure would appear as you go deeper and deeper into your endless search for knowledge. Sometimes you will have to go back and look broader for a while, but that’s not wasted effort. That’s why I now see value in being both a generalist and a specialist in different contexts.