Generalists - those that know a bit about a lot.

To generalize or to specialize? That is the question. The vast working world requires both of course but in the web design and development agency space, its the generalist that will flourish and become the team lead, the agency V.P., and the owner of their own venture.

The Generalist is a definition that seems to pursue those of us that have had longer careers in one focus or another. It seems we start out seeking out jobs where we can leverage our core skill-set which may be front end HTML/CSS and Javascript. Or, it could be backend technology like System Administration, AWS, NoSQL, MySQL, Java, Python or some Content Management System (CMS). How about Project Management, Agile/Scrum, Kanban, Business Intelligence, and technical writing? Whatever specialty we choose in the beginning of our exciting career, over time we understand the need to learn about the other disciplines in our industry that touch our every day work lives. Better yet, we realize that we have to in order to become better at our specialty and to become more valuable to our teams.

I Am What I Am

I am a generalist. It's something that used to be hard to admit to in the web development and design industry. Initially I lived and breathed trying to become an expert in something, anything, to help bring value to the teams I was a part of. What followed was a vicious pursuit of my first certification, the hallowed MCSE+Internet.

Back in the day, certifications were needed to get your foot in the door anywhere let alone give credence to what you knew. Microsoft and its partners were churning out MCSE's left and right. It got so bad that we called most of the people coming out of MCSE training 'Paper Certs'. They had a piece of paper because they took a test, but they had little to no real world experience, but I digress.

I received the certification and found very quickly that it didn't mean very much in my industry. I can say I learned a something in the process but there was nothing like rolling up my sleeves and just doing the work that was in front of me. We were blazing '.com' trails and the things we were doing didn't exist so searching for answers didn't reveal much. We were inventing the Internet of things and there wasn't any formal training for that. Just a lot of blood, sweat, tears and head-against-wall banging.

The Call for the Specialist

The industry kept calling for specialists in things like server farms, coding, design, UX, client management and project management.  This need for specialists did a few things to these agencies.

  1. It resulted in a LOT of agency overhead because this type of specialist structure. Specialists were expensive because they were the only ones that new about the particular technology void you were trying to fill. However, there were consequences to this type of staffing structure.
     
  2. People that did not have any cross-training and therefore were 'one hit wonders'. They just weren't trained in real-life situations where one needs to have a breadth of knowledge to get their work done. If someone was out on vacation that knew a particular technology, the project you were working on just came to a halt until that person came back with their beach sun-burn on their nose and flip-flop tan on their feet.
     
  3. The culture that was reinforced was "That's not in my job description". Specialists knew their craft very well, but you didn't ask them to do anything outside of their box because they had no interest lending a helping hand to the Project Manager or Sales person trying to educate the client.

The interesting thing was, that even though the call for specialists became a constant ringing in the ears, there was an unintended movement towards the need for generalists. We had to hire people that had insight about the world around their specialty. It became clear that the inflexible team members that were not capable of, or willing to, learn about more that their core skill-set were the most frustrating to work with.

...the most effective team members I have worked with have chops in more than one discipline

I don't want to belittle  the value in someone becoming a pro in their craft but the most effective team members I have worked have chops in more than one discipline. They may major in design, UX, or coding, but they minor in project management, client management, or sales.

While there was, and is, certainly a place for hiring specialists in larger companies, most web-based agencies know that they do no have the luxury of hiring silo'd workers. Its interesting to see job postings out there in the wild. It seems that they all have the "kitchen sink" list of skill-sets they want in the advertised position. Its obvious they are trying to get the best bang for their buck in hiring someone.

You can also imagine that hiring people that can wear multiple hats allows for scalability. If that agency wants to expand products an services into areas where their team members have experience, it is a lot easier to do this if some knowledge is already in house. There is also a great advantage to knowledge overlap within a team.  A front end developer that can also write business requirements and communicate well with clients goes a lot further than a developer that only wants to sit in their corner and sling code.

In his book called Evolutionaries Carter Phipps says that it is a good thing to know "a little bit about a lot." A goal we should all have is to know more about the ancillary processes and disciplines that work hand in hand with our specialty.

Specialize in SOMETHING

Being generalist does not mean you don't need to hone particular skill-sets. You've got to be good at something that brings your marquis value to an organization. But there are "halo" skills that you need to explore and experience to make the skill-set you specialize more valuable. For example if you are a front end web developer that loves HTML, LESS, Sass, JavaScript and frameworks, they maybe reading up on User Experience (UX) methodologies is worth your while. Researching the latest design trends will also be helpful when you integrate with the designers that will send you their works.

At the same time, if you work in or with an agency, you should have a working knowledge of business requirements gathering and documentation. You need to know how to relate complex concepts to business people. Yeah, that's right, you should know how to write as well. Its a skill-set that is being lost in exchange for more exciting things. But that is for another blog post.

I think that there are jobs in this world that require specialists and these specialists need to be the best at what they do. But in the world of web agencies where, design, UX, databases, backend management, project management, agile practices, client empathy, and sales are all key components; the generalist has the upper hand.

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About the Author

Erik Kulvinskas Head Shot

Erik Kulvinskas has over 2 decades of web development experience that started way back before front-ends, back-ends, 'dot-coms' and social media. He loves making things easier to understand and more efficient to use. He loves spending time with his family, cycling and volunteering. He enjoys empowering others to be their best and leading others by serving them.