Discover more from The Hybrid Hacker
Specialists vs Generalists vs T-Shaped
Exploring the Connection Between Team's Maturity and Required Specialization
When I started my career in the late '90s, I was mostly focused on security engineering, and I remember that for every branch of security, there were a few gurus I was following. There were people focusing on penetration testing (which I did for a while), people focused on forensic analysis, and people who were great at physical security. When I switched my career more to system engineering and started working for a bigger telco, I remember hardware experts, each focusing on specific hardware, system engineers, each focusing on a specific OS, coders being great at one coding language, and then general managers trying to keep all these individuals together.
That was the era of specialization.
Then, with the internet becoming mainstream, the IT world started to grow, and startups popped up like mushrooms. These specialized individuals, started to run their own businesses and had to learn diverse skills to survive and succeed. This is where IT generalists started to take shape.
In the last ten years or so, we witnessed the battle between specialists vs. generalists, but lately, there's one more contender joining this battle. You may have come across the term "T-Shaped" as the solution to all your team-building challenges.
But here's the thing: when it comes to engineering teams, as I often like to remind you, there's no one-size-fits-all approach. Each team is like a puzzle, and the shape of its pieces also depends on the stage it's in and the goals it aims to achieve.
Today we’ll try to demystify the various shapes of knowledge that engineers can have, such as being a Generalist, a Specialist, or a T-Shaped individual. We'll also briefly explore some less known shapes and, most importantly, figure out when it's best to use one shape over another.
🧩 Shapes of Knowledge
Before we delve deep into team dynamics, let's familiarize ourselves with the different shapes of knowledge that engineers can bring to the table.
The word 'shape' is used as a metaphor to illustrate the diverse directions that knowledge can take. For instance, an 'I' shape represents knowledge that is developed primarily in a vertical direction, while a 'T' shape indicates knowledge that is developed both horizontally and vertically.
Consider these forms as traits inherent to every engineer, which can assist you in constructing more robust teams tailored to your needs.
A specialist is someone who dedicates good part of their life to mastering just one instrument, say a violin. They invest countless hours into it, mastering even the tiniest details of this discipline.
In the world of IT engineering, this person is an expert in a very specific field, such as a particular coding language, a specific operating system, a database, or even a piece of hardware.
Pros and Cons
Expertise: specialists are very good at what they do and can tackle complex tasks with precision.
Efficiency: they excel in specialized tasks, which can lead to faster project completion.
Clear Roles: specialists have well-defined roles and can contribute significantly to specific projects, without overlapping with other team members.
Deep Knowledge: they bring deep knowledge to the team, which can be invaluable in critical situations.
Limited Versatility: specialists may struggle when asked to work on tasks outside their specialized area.
Communication Challenges: they might find it challenging to communicate complex ideas to non-specialists.
Dependency: relying too heavily on specialists can create bottlenecks in project workflows.
Risk of Obsolescence: if their specialization becomes less relevant, it could impact their long-term career prospects.
These are the so-called "Jack of all trades, master of none". Imagine someone who enjoys playing multiple musical instruments. They play the piano, the guitar, the drums, and even the flute. While they might not be concert-level in any, they can confidently play each.
In engineering terms, a generalist has knowledge of various fields, often not all of them technical. They might not be able to deliver the best product on the market alone, but they can likely build an MVP from the ground up, including code, design, and sometimes even marketing it!
Pros and Cons
Adaptability: generalist engineers can work in different areas because they know a bit about a lot of things.
Problem-Solvers: they are good at finding answers to problems since they can use knowledge from different areas.
Good Communicators: they can work well with others because they can understand and talk about many different topics.
Project Managers: they can oversee projects and make sure everything fits together well.
Cost-Effective: for small projects or startups, they can do multiple jobs, which can save money.
Not Experts: they may not know a lot about one specific thing, so they can't do highly specialized tasks very well.
Learning Takes Time: it can be hard for them to learn new things quickly because they have to learn about many different topics.
Simplifying Problems: they might make problems seem easier than they really are because they don't know all the details.
A T-shaped engineer combines the best of both worlds (specialists and generalists). It's like someone who has mastered the guitar and can also play several other instruments proficiently.
They possess a deep understanding of one engineering domain, much like their expertise in playing the guitar. However, they are also familiar with other areas, ensuring they're never completely lost when faced with different challenges.
Adaptability: T-shaped engineers can work on a variety of tasks and adapt to changing project needs, although they may be somewhat less adaptable compared to generalists due to their specialization.
Collaborative Skills: they can bridge the gap between specialists from different areas, fostering teamwork.
Problem-Solving: T-shaped engineers are versatile problem-solvers due to their broad knowledge.
Effective Communicators: they can explain complex concepts to different teams, facilitating smoother project coordination.
Not Deep Experts: they may not excel as much as specialists in one particular area.
Learning Demands: keeping up with multiple skills can be time-consuming and challenging.
Risk of Oversimplification: as with generalists, they might simplify complex problems, potentially missing important details.
Limits in Specialization: in highly specialized tasks, T-shaped engineers might not be the best fit.
While Generalist, Specialist, and T-Shaped individuals are the most well-known, you may encounter other variations of knowledge shapes, such as:
E-Shaped: E-shaped professionals are like specialists (the "E" represents depth), but they also have some knowledge in a few other areas (the horizontal stroke of the "E"). They are experts in one field while having a basic understanding of related topics.
In my opinion, these definitions are a bit extreme and can easily lead to confusion, so we'll stick with the three we have already assessed.
🌱 Different Shapes for Different Stages
Now that we've outlined the primary shapes of knowledge, and also the most exotic ones, it's important as an engineering manager to understand how these can help shaping your team.
Despite the hype around T-Shapes, that undoubtedly are great type of engineers, I believe that every stage of your team life cycle, needs different engineering shapes.
Specialization and Team's Maturity
In the initial stages of building your engineering team, it's crucial to establish strong foundations that can support your team's growth and enable it to deliver results as quickly as possible. Often, you will only have the capacity to hire a few people, and you will need to cover a wide range of expertise.
That's why in the initial stages, unless your team is focused on solving very specific problems, specialization may not be necessary. Instead, you'll require individuals with a broader spectrum of skills who can handle various tasks. On the other hand, as your team matures, you may find the need for specialists who excel in their respective areas.
Start with Generalists
In the beginning your team needs care, attention, and versatility to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. This is where Generalists shine.
Why Choose Generalists:
Versatility: early-stage teams face various challenges, and among the three categories, Generalists are the most versatile problem solvers.
Growth Mindset: generalists often possess an entrepreneurial mindset that proves valuable in the initial phases of team growth.
Leadership: they serve as effective mentors and future leaders, guiding team members in many areas.
Cost-Effectiveness: when you bootstrap a team, unless you are part of a large corporation with well-structured procedures, you'll likely have a limited budget. Generalists can cover a broader range of areas, reducing the number of people you need to hire.
Solidify with T-Shaped
As your team grows, while it’s still important to think wider, you can also start specializing a bit in specific areas that need more attention, based on the context you are working on. T-Shaped will be very useful in this phase.
Why Choose T-Shaped Individuals:
Specialized: T-Shaped individuals offer the best of both worlds - deep expertise in their specialized area (the vertical bar of the "T") while maintaining a broader understanding of related fields. This allows them to tackle complex issues with precision.
Effective Communication: in larger teams or when working across multiple disciplines, T-Shaped individuals excel at conveying complex ideas. Their ability to bridge the gap between specialists and generalists ensures that everyone is on the same page, leading to smoother project execution.
Problem Solving: T-Shaped individuals bring a holistic perspective to problem-solving. They can identify connections between different aspects of a project and propose well-rounded solutions.
Efficiency: T-Shaped individuals can streamline processes by integrating their specialized knowledge with a broader skill set. This efficiency can lead to faster project completion and cost savings.
Skyrocket with Specialists
In a mature team, the attention to details, becomes crucial to excel in your field. While T-Shaped specialized experience sometimes can be enough, if you need to solve specific problems or innovate in a particular area, you want the best of that specific area and specialists are there to elevate your team to the next level.
Why Choose Specialists:
Specialization: specialists are essential for fine-tuning processes and optimizing performance within their specific domain. Their deep knowledge ensures that your team operates at peak efficiency in critical areas.
Innovation: specialists are not just experts; they are innovators within their domain. They can push the boundaries of what's possible and drive breakthroughs that lead to a competitive edge.
Quality Assurance: specialists uphold the highest standards in their area of expertise, ensuring that the work meets or exceeds industry benchmarks and regulations.
Market Leadership: having specialists on your team can help your organization establish itself as a leader in a specific field or niche, attracting clients and partners seeking top-tier expertise.
Training and Knowledge Transfer: specialists can play a vital role in training and knowledge transfer within the team, ensuring that their expertise is passed on to others and that your team remains competitive in the long term.
Understanding that different types of knowledge work better in different situations, and what's great for one team might not be the same for another, is essential. The trick is to get what your team really needs and choose the right knowledge pieces to make the big picture complete.
So, whether you're a first-time engineering manager or a seasoned one, always keep in mind that the shape of your team's knowledge is a powerful tool in your arsenal for success.
✌️ That’s all folks
That's all for today! As always, I would love to hear from my readers (and if you've made it this far, you're definitely one of the bravest). Please don't hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn and send a message. I always respond to everyone!