Generalist vs. Specialist — Frank derFrankie Neulichedl

Generalist vs. Specialist

Who would you like to be, a Swiss army knife or a forged Japanese kitchen knife? Both have great "skill" sets and have been on the market a long time. One is a generalist, a tool with many features which can be used in many ways. You can cut, open cans, ... you name it, but all features are compromised in functionality a little bit in order to fit in a knife, you will have a hard time cutting sushi with it. The Japanese kitchen knife on the other hand is great for cutting raw fish for sushi and sashimi - but fails when you want to open a can. In graphic design we have the same problem. Should a graphic designer become a generalist or a specialist? Print and web design, or specialize on social media. Dig deep into php programming or have just the right understanding of the technology?

Management gurus around the world write books where they postulate one year "only who specializes survives", and the next year "the generalist is the fittest for survival". How can this be?

In reality there is often space for both the generalist and the specialist - like in the knife metaphor I've made. The Japanese knife can survive because it's niche (cutting) is wide enough. A specialist who chooses a too narrow niche will fail in the long run - just imagine, who would need a knife for dinosaur meat today?

It is good to be specialist when...

  • A new technology you master becomes popular
  • Complicated solutions require in-depth knowledge
  • There are only a few specialist in your field

It is better to be a generalist when...

  • Technologies change very often
  • You have gained your wide range of experiences through real world projects
  • Most of your clients need personalized solutions achievable with standard tools
  • You cover a wide range of clients and projects
  • You are in a leading position and have to oversee many different aspects beyond one specific field
  • You know specialist you can hire when things need a specialist

Should you hire a generalist or a specialist?

In my opinion generalists are especially for smaller agencies and companies the better fit as full time employees. Specialist can be contracted to do special jobs. As an employer you want a motivated and flexible staff. It is far easier to move a generalist to another field, than to lay off a specialist and search for a new specialist.

This is even truer in today’s internet times. Let's take "social media experts". Many of those social media specialists master the technology behind Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare etc. but lack the marketing background and design experience. Successful campaigns are not just about one channel.

Web technologies are even worse. Frameworks and programming languages are growing exponentially in number and complexity. Mobile applications, the new hype, is just as bad. iOS need C++ (a special version obviously), Android Java, Windows Phone 7 C# (speak C sharp). Let's be honest, it's a mess.

You can see, unless you specialize in that area, that especially for programming jobs (and web site programming as well) are best done by specialists on contract.

Foto curtesy by capcase