Jack of all trades, master of none.. But who ever needs a master of something these days? With so many hard problems solved and complex tasks automated, a single person can achieve a lot across the whole field. Let’s say you aren’t google or facebook. Let’s say you are a one in a million middle-sized company who needs a custom built backend to manage their product and customers, a marketing-communication strategy to reach out to their target audience (newsletters, social media, etc.), and a website for online presence and personal branding that ranks well in google and provides relevant information to customers. A single person at a normal full-time position can actually provide all these things. And a team of two or three people can make something really striking.

I can’t say that being a generalist is a good route for everyone (or even most people). But I’ve had a taste of both extremes, and I want to make a case for generalism because most people I’ve spoken to seem to prefer to specialize.

When I was a front-end developer at my previous employer, I was one guy on a five person team, who took care of a small part of developing Magento webstores. We had guidelines for everything that anyone could have an opinion on, down to the way one should arrange css selectors or formulate pre-select hooks.

At my current position (at a much smaller company), I am the front-end team. I am also the design team, as well as the marketing team. As such, my responsibilities are spread out fairly wide and involve:

  • Designing company website (From UX to wireframes to design in photoshop) (Every so often, the website gets an update)
  • Building company website (used to be Drupal, now WordPress) (From choosing framework to back-end development and front-end development)
  • Updating website (themes, plugins, etc.)
  • Extending website with new features
  • Creating mini sites for special events
  • Proposing new technologies, etc.
  • SEO strategy and implementation
  • Creating and maintaining content (text, images, video, url health, etc.)
  • Writing MySQL queries for customer portal
  • Design newsletter templates (layout, images, Mailchimp integration)
  • Proof reading texts (English)
  • Creating icons for online and offline use
  • Participating in design for core product (a web-app)
  • Planning and guarding deadlines
  • Selecting and purchasing stock photography (weighing price, image quality, rights, etc.)
  • Managing resources (anything from hardware and software, to colleagues time)
  • Creating digital documents like Powerpoint presentations, roadmaps, brochures, comparison charts, sponsor information, etc.
  • Updating and guarding company style guide (everyone will try to get their personal favorite style into the end-product)
  • Choosing fonts for online and offline use (make sure rights are in order)
  • Photography at company events as well as product photography for marketing purposes
  • Image manipulation
  • Creating campaigns for holidays, special events, new software releases, etc.
  • Designing print material like brochures, posters, stickers, flags and t-shirts, umbrella’s, etc.
  • Ordering print materials and managing misprints; know which printer to go to, which paper to choose, how to deliver files to printer (cmyk, vector files, embedded resources, cut-off area, get refunds if needed, etc.)

Of course, being a specialist allowed me to get really good at one technique and with one framework, because that was the only thing I worked with all day long. But the point is not just about becoming the best that you can be at your specific trade. It’s also achieving a sense of being human, rather then a perfectly tuned manipulator of highly specific systems.

Being a generalist allows be to dive into code for a solid week, and then switch it up with a couple of days of designing print materials. It allows me to birth an idea for a holiday campaign, and see it through from beginning to the end. It allows me to say that we need to cut corners on our SEO efforts, because the newsletters have a higher business value. In short, being a generalist allows me to think big thoughts, instead of endlessly perfecting the same task over and over. And at least for now, this seems to out-weigh the sacrifice of not being able to really master a single technique.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
— Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love