Hacking "Jack of all trades, master of none"
Confessions from a wannabe renaissance man
Posted on November 4, 2016
Today, developer competencies are being more and more commoditized, and while methodologies like Scrum talks about T-shaped people, many employers tend to favor specialists over generalists.
Given this, it is probably a pretty bad idea to come out as a Jack of all trades. But, nonetheless, that's what I am about to do.
I am a Renaissance man wannabe. A Jack of all trades, master of none. A generalist. Proficient in many areas, pretty good in others; and really good in a few selected ones. But Master of none. Which, strange as it might seem, is something I consider to be one of my greatest strengths.
Let me elaborate.
Specialization will always make you stand out of the crowd, but with global competition, it takes a lot of time and effort to stay at the top. And honestly - how often is it required to be among the best of the best? Given that you are worth your salt, it is often sufficient to be better than the competing applicants to get an attractive job or contract.
Then we have Moore's Law. Given the pace our industry is evolving with, many of the specialties that are in high demand today might be obsolete tomorrow. Being a die-hard specialist is a bit like putting all eggs in one basket. Ok, technologies rarely vanish overnight, but when AI go mainstream and robots roam the streets, many specialists will be standing there with the short straw, while the generalists are still in high demand.
The final advantage for us Jack-of-all-trades is the broad base of knowledge that comes from being a generalist. Having experience from multiple disciplines and business verticals can provide new angles and synergies, and while the generalist kind of knowledge might not be as deep as the experts', it is often better suited for bridging and integrating different bodies of knowledge.
Please note that I am not advocating against striving for mastery per se; if you have a passion, you should definitely pursue it. But the drive should come from within, from a genuine desire to get better, not from an obsession with a title.
Compare the dream of having a black belt with the desire to learn martial arts. Put your efforts where you get the most happiness per invested hour.
What is professional mastery anyway? And who are the people we perceive as Masters or Gurus?
First, we have the real Masters. The rare Gurus who have earned their reputation by consistently whipping out sheer awesomeness. Then we have the celebrities, people doing Pluralsight courses and conference talks. Often they belong to the Guru category, but not always.
My point? I think that mastery is something that, at least to a great extent, lies in the eye of the beholder. Which means that you don't have to spend the famous 10.000 hours to become a Master in the eyes of your peers or a presumptive employer.
It is a clear-cut case for the 80/20 rule. Given that it takes roughly 20% of the total time to learn 80% of a given topic; then the final 20% of knowledge takes 80% of the time.
Put another way; this means that the step from well-rounded to Guru accounts for 80% of the effort and time.
Personally, I would only put in the additional 80% required for mastery if the topic was truly one of my passions. If the topic were something that simply was required for a job, I would go for well-rounded and then move on.
Most job descriptions today are very specific, clearly aimed at the specialists out there. But, in my experience, once you get a foot in the door, the generalist is the long-term winner. It is not unusual that one's broad experience will result in more responsibilities and opportunities.
In the end, I guess it's a matter of personality. I happen to be wired with an all-purpose-i7-processor of a brain (although it sure felt more like a 386 this morning), while others are more like a Bitcoin-mining ASIC rig.
If you belong in the latter camp, I wish you luck on your quest for becoming the next digital Gandalf, and I look forward to being awed by the greatness that will follow in your wake.
In the meantime, I continue my own humble Renaissance-man-quest for being a great and versatile full-stack web developer, designer, architect, strategist, productivity journeyman, blogger, and entrepreneur. And last but not the least: to pursue the life-long goal of being a passionate snowboarder, kitesurfer, husband, and father.
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