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:
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