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This chapter is from the book

...And Generalization Second

On the other hand....

Specialization does have its problems. It can lead to bottlenecks when specialists cannot cope with demand and others cannot take over for them. After all, I once did design a corporate web site myself, including interaction design and graphics design because our regular designers were unavailable for weeks. And it can lead to stagnation when the specialists are unable (or unwilling) to pick up work that they are unfamiliar with. For example, I once did ask a software developer to help me carry out some marketing activities I could not have done on my own. Our marketing efforts would have stalled if he had not willingly co-operated.

I have no use of people telling me they have a "broad range of skills," meaning that they never specialized in any specific area. I clearly prefer specialists over generalists. But I like it even better when the specialists have a few extra areas in which they have built up some knowledge and expertise. Fortunately, I'm not alone in that opinion.

  • A generalizing specialist is someone who: 1) Has one or more technical specialties [...]. 2) Has at least a general knowledge of software development. 3) Has at least a general knowledge of the business domain in which they work. 4) Actively seeks to gain new skills in both their existing specialties as well as in other areas, including both technical and domain areas.5

A generalizing specialist does one kind of job very well and some other jobs adequately. With generalizing specialists your teams enjoy the benefits of high productivity, while lowering the risk of bottlenecks and retaining flexibility. Generalizing specialists are sometimes called T-shaped people. They have a principal skill that is the vertical leg of the T, but they are also inquisitive and interested in branching out into other skills. Such people are valuable because they can explore insights from multiple perspectives. [Brown 2005]

When hiring people and putting together teams, look for T-shaped people. Always check if they are specialists in at least one useful area, and then verify that they are willing and able to pick up other kinds of work as well. If you're looking for a software developer, make sure it's a good one. But also ask some questions about graphics, design, hardware, and maybe even marketing.

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