Is being a generalist the worst thing in coding?

Is being a generalist the worst thing in coding?
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#1

Hello,

I think I have a disease: I know a lot of little things in many IT areas (and other areas), but I seldom get committed enough to dig into more specialized stuff.

Thats is: I am a generalist at heart.

In a world dominated by technicians and specialists, I feel I have always been an endangered species.

Can it be cured?

Not that I don’t have the will to commit to a specific area (exemple: Javascript) but lack of time, distraction.

In the end I find that I get less from knowing many things in various domains/areas than knowing very well a few domains…And it doesn’t pay too, because recruiters want experts and specialized people , not a good jack of all trades …


#2

I’m a generalist. I’m on a really small team right now and being able to do lots of different things is definitely an asset. I write front-end code, back-end, build servers, etc. If I didn’t have those skills, I wouldn’t have the position I do now. And no, I’m not an expert at any of those things, just competent enough to get work done. I’ve felt bad about being a generalist at one time, but I’ve leaned into it now. It can be a strength.


#3

Please explaint to me how to turn a seemingly apparent weakness to recruiters into a strength?

When a recruiter asks for 5 years experience in Javascript (for example) and you have only 1 or 3 in total accumulated UNOFFICIAL experience, how could you possibly compete with an IT candidate who has a proven track record of 5 years (or more) of coding Javascript everyday in the same company or several companies?

I mean, I’m not pessimistic but trying to be realistic…If you can convince me of finding a way to turn my “not-so-apparent” hidden generalist skills into valuable and monetizable requested skills, please say so!

Most of the time I get the famous reply from online recruiters “You don’t have the required professionnal experience” or “We have found a more skilled candidate. But we will contact you if any further opportunity arises (and then it never arises of course).”


#4

In that case, I guess I’m a generalist too. (didn’t really think of it that way, I thought I am a “jack of all trades, master of none” but generalist sounds better :slight_smile: I’m not a deep expert on anything, but I have a broad skill set.

Start your own web dev business**. Being a generalist is perfect for this. Because your main job is solving your customer’s problem and coming up with a solution – using whatever tool, platform, framework, language you choose.

** I’ve been doing this full-time, work-at-home for 18 yrs now, and about 3 yrs part-time prior to that.

You will never hear these words if you’re running your own web shop. In fact, you will be the one looking for contractors when you farm out some tasks you don’t want to do, or have time to do (logo, graphics, etc) and you will be the one picking out people you want to work with – not the other way around.

Your clients will also not require or ask if you have 5-yrs experience. The only questions they’ll ask are: A) Can you do this? B) How long will it take you? C) How much will it cost me or How much is your hourly rate?


#5

It’s just tough to have a home web dev business and a kid or two and knowing that some months you won’t be able to pay your bills and your kids requesting new toys…(and your wife leaving you because not enough money coming in).
I’m affraid of that honestly.I’v been there, and don’t want it anymore…The best is having an employee job and having your own dev business in parallel. That’s what I’m trying to do right now (I already have the first fortunately).But the first is not fulfilling at all…


#6

Just my $.02…

I think that (as rug3y points out), there will be some situations where being a generalist will be a plus.

Look at it this way. As a professional musician, I always have people coming up to me and saying, “Hey, my uncle Mike is the best musician ever! He can play every instrument!” And I always am left feeling, “Uhhh, so what? When has anyone ever been hired for playing every instrument?” You get hired because you can play one instrument well.

Or to change the metaphor, as a musician I’ve sometimes been hired because I can play just about any style. In that sense, I am a musical generalist. There are a few jobs (like on a cruise ship) where that comes in handy. But, the vast majority of jobs I get are because I play jazz guitar very well. They don’t care that I can fake my way through a country solo or can play reggae or I can play mandolin. The vast majority of work is because I’m a specialist.

To go back to my original metaphor, there probably are situations where playing multiple instruments is a good thing. Band teachers have to. It’s a good skill for conductors, composers, and arrangers. Playing music for a circus…

If you want to be a generalist and have a few jobs open or work for yourself, then go for it. I mean that seriously - you can build a good career that way. If you want to open up some new possibilities, then choose some favorite techs and dive deeper. You can be a strong candidate who has a solid base in a wide range of techs but has a focus on one in particular.

In reality, that’s probably what most specialists are. If someone is a React specialist, that does not mean that he’s never done jQuery or never tried Angular or whatever. Probably most specialists have exposure to a wide range of techs but simply focus on a couple.


#7

Project management is probably where generalist knowledge pays off best.

Being in position to understand what a variety of specialists are doing and consolidate/integrate/coordinate this information is a valuable skill.


#8

I don’t find my jobs through recruiters. Being a generalist is definitely a strength on a small team because everyone on that team has to fill multiple roles. Getting your first gig is difficult. I just broke in to programming about a year ago, I’ve been through several jobs since then and now I’m freelancing. If you can’t find success with recruiters, you should try applying at different kinds of companies (small companies) and get your foot in the door. You can gain experience that way.


#9

You make a good point. I’m also a musician…and a generalist in that area too. Rarely does a single band have a ton of gigs. At one point I was playing in 4 - 5 different bands and gigging several times a week. One band needed a drummer, another a guitarist, another a bass player…if I was just a drummer, I’d have gotten only a few of those gigs. Because I’m a generalist, I can have gigs all the time. It’s the same way with programming for me…I find a client that needs someone to fix bugs in a Vue app…ok, I’ve done that before, I’m your guy. I find a client that needs someone to look at Python code…I’m your guy too. Oh yeah, you need someone to troubleshoot your server config…guess what? I’m your guy.


#10

That’s an interesting point. I still get the impression that the work place (both music and coding) favors specialists, but you’re right that there is room for generalists to find work.


#11

If an employer or client does not care exactly how the project is completed, I think a generalist is more likely to get the job. If the project is complex and requires a special focus in a particular language, like using python’s machine learning Math/Statistics libraries to solve a particular type of problem, then someone with that specific background will more than likely get that job. A generalist could still probably create a solution, but would first have to learn how to use the library and how best to use it for the specific problem. Also, If time is a factor for such a project, then a specialist is typically the go to person.


#12

Being generalist pays a lot if you aim to a management position (like Team Lead, Engineering Manager or even CTO). Unfortunately for you it will be harder to get started since specialists are more appealing to medium and big companies. That said you could always find a job in a start up or apply to an hybrid position (like scrum master, delivery lead, agile coach, project manager, etc.). In any case if I were in your shoes I wouldn’t reach out to the internal or external recruiters, but to the interested person directly if possible (this is doable in a start-up).


#13

I think it’s about recognizing where your strengths lie and marketing yourself the right way, or applying for the positions that meet your strengths. A specialist is better at one thing. To put it in perspective, at my current gig, I replaced a team of 3 guys who knew one thing each. Each of them were better at their thing, but somehow I’m able to get more work done than all of them put together. At the end of the day, if you can provide that kind of value to a business, you’ll find work.


#14

Yeah, I guess it depends on what jobs you’re looking for. I’ve been looking for corporate jobs lately. They tend to only care how well you know their stack. They don’t care if you know a little it of every programming language. They want specialists.

But if you’re looking to get clients to hire you, then being “pretty good at a lot of things” would be a good thing.

But I think it is an important distinction. I remember a sign I saw in a barber shop in St Kitts. It said, “We specialize in all styles.” Hmmmm, I don’t think they know what “specialize” means. I also remember on old quote from the Love Boat. The doc (a medical generalist) was joking with a doctor friend (a medical specialist). The friend kids the doc, “You generalist learn less and less about more and more until you know nothing about everything,” To which the doctor retorts, “And you specialists learn more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing.”

I guess it just depends on what you’re looking for. I guess I’m a little jaded by the types of jobs I’m searching. The vast majority of them want specialists. But then I guess there are segments of the market that don’t show up in my searches.


#15

I would think the start companies would want a person who could wear many hats (more of a generalist).


#16

Well, one can be a generalist in all aspects of technology, servers, programming… and at the same time be a specialist in a particular segment, industry, business, or niche market.


#17

I would think the start companies would want a person who could wear many hats (more of a generalist).

There are a few that don’t really know what they want (but those are usually looking for a CTO) but most of the ones that I’ve seen have a very specific list of the technologies they want and they’re usually asking for at least some expertise. I’ve seen a few ads asking for people that can do “a bit of everything”, but that is the tiny minority of what I’m seeing. But as I said, I’m only looking at a particular segment of the market.

Well, one can be a generalist in all aspects of technology, servers, programming… and at the same time be a specialist in a particular segment, industry, business, or niche market.

Yeah, I don’t think we’re saying that a specialist is someone that knows only one thing, say python. Even a specialist should know something about servers, etc. We’re not saying that a specialist only knows one thing. It’s a matter of focus - a generalist works towards learning as many things as possible whereas a specialist may have some familiarity with a broad range of subjects, his focus is on learning a specific set (presumably complementary) technologies and learning it very well.

That’s how I would define the terms at least. Of course that’s a kind of black and white way of looking at it and I’m sure there are some people somewhere in the middle. But maybe others define the terms differently.


#18

If you really feel like you’re disadvantaged in the job market, spend a month or two and acquire a specialty. There’s this concept of the “T-Shaped Person”, someone who has a wide range of abilities with deeper knowledge in one of those skills. As a self-described generalist, you have a good foundation for becoming that T-Shaped person. I’m currently doing this myself. You can either pick your strongest skill and make it sharper, take your biggest flaw and make it your biggest strength, or just pick something that interests you.

Side note: I have a ton of friends in tech, several in hiring positions. There are a ton of unqualified dummies out there who have jobs. These people know how to sell themselves. Pick something, learn it, put it on your resume. You don’t have to be the best, you just have to be slightly above average, and believe in yourself enough to sell yourself. Do that and you’ll have jobs any time you need them.


#19
  1. That is a great quote/joke!
  2. Thanks for putting the Love Boat theme song in my head