Generalists and Specialists

While I’m on my theme of people value, there is a group of technology professionals who are often quite undervalued – the generalists. Until the last couple of years there had been a trend of increasing specialization of technology development roles, notably the back-end/front-end split which is now being replaced again by that great generalist role, the full-stack developer. And here’s the thing – overall, the cost of generalists and specialists doesn’t vary heavily, with subject specialists – e.g. InfoSec, DBAs, Authentication Architects (I saw that one advertised in Wellington) – costing a bit more, and platform specialists – e.g. Java dev, UI dev – a little less. In this continuum of generalists to specialists, generalists represent an absolute bargain.

The Generalist Developer

An experienced developer can do 90% of what a specialist can do in their field.

Need DevOps? Why not get your developer to do it? They can research potential solutions, read and understand API documentation, pickup Bash or Powershell pretty quickly, and setup basic configurations based on recommended best-practice from vendors. Plus when they’re done, they can go back to development rather than twiddling their thumbs.

Need QA automation? Need requirements analysis? Need basic network setup? Need Project management? Need customer support? Need internal IT? Need architecture? Need a DBA? These are all things I’ve done to a production level in my 14 years primarily as a ‘developer’.

The vast majority of software out there is about understanding, automating, and transforming processes, and generalists are amply qualified to solve these problems. And where they can’t solve a problem from experience, they are expected to go out and research the plethora of alternatives, running a huge gamut of potential technologies (and therefore specializations), and pick a solution.
Sure, they may not create the algorithm that founds the next Google, but those companies represent a minuscule segment of the field and require a level of specialization more likely found in academia than in industry anyway.

In software product development you want generalists. These are people who know that, for instance, information security is important so they pick technologies, tools, and solutions that promote good security practice. And because they’re not as sure of themselves they are more likely to test and verify their assumptions and designs. They also have a wide view of the world, so can much more effectively evaluate trade-offs between different solutions and solve a wider range of problems than a specialist can. And typically, for little difference in price!

The Specialist

I’m not suggesting we don’t need specialists at all. I’ve found their value to be acting in advisory or consultancy roles where they are the checks-and-balances that warn people about traps and pitfalls and educate the generalists on best practices. I freely acknowledge I wouldn’t have some of the knowledge I have today without the support specialists have been able to provide.

However this very act of education decreases the relative value of the specialist because, by receiving more knowledge the generalists ‘level-up’ and reduce their knowledge gap in the specialist’s field. That makes the need for the specialist more tenuous, and some people find it challenging to overcome the instinct to protect one’s space. This assumes that specialists are static creatures, and I would expect they too are continually learning and trying to level-up, but within one organization the usefulness of their knowledge may be limited.

Another problem with specialists in a small organization, is that they effectively constrain your solutions. The company thinks, “well, I’ve got an Oracle DBA so we’d better use Oracle and stored procedures” even if it’s not the best solution. Whereas, a generalist will evaluate a range of solutions based on their experience, the company’s accumulated knowledge and environment, industry trends, future hiring needs, relative costs, etc. etc. to inform the solution choice.

Conclusion

If you’re a five person development shop, a specialist doesn’t make sense. If you need that expertise you should hire a consultant. If you’re a five hundred or five thousand person development enterprise, then those specialists should have plenty to do to make it worth having them on the payroll.