Specialist, generalist or polymath?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy January 3, 2016
The debate about 2016 skills needs needs further amplification. Becoming a polymath will be a requirement that taxes those who are specialists.

Leonardo da Vinci - polymath
da Vinci - the ultimate polymath

Over the holiday period, Jon Reed put up The 2016 enterprise skills debate - specialization or generalization? As he said, there was an interesting Twitter conversation around the topic. As I read Reed's piece, I understood where he's coming from but disagree with his conclusion which I consider incomplete. I believe we need more polymaths not just specialists with generalist skills.

If he had titled the piece something like; The 2016 enterprise technology skills debate....then I would be more comfortable but even then I'm not wholly convinced.

Information technology is a peculiar beast. It is fluid. There is always something new to learn. Whether that's a new programming language, an entirely new approach to building software, the latest and greatest in cyber security, hardware architectures, a fresh take on building a process...the list goes on. Information technology is, therefore, a profession that demands a near continual skills refresh for those that need to remain current. And that's pretty much everyone who is part of the industry.

Information technology is also a profession that demands a high degree of specialization in order to become super proficient. I can for example write rudimentary code in a few programming languages but I would hardly regard myself as an efficient code writer let alone a subject matter expert in any of them. I have a reasonably good grasp of process design but I don't have the patience to grind out all the details. I regard myself as a proficient amateur in CMS but don't have a full grass of everything needed to assemble a genuine enterprise class system. In all cases, I leave the essential detail to experts.

The important point is that the skills I have equip me to better understand what technical people are explaining in the context of the job at hand. That is good enough in most circumstances. When it isn't, then I only need ask for explanations.

On the flip side, I spent years learning the craft of accounting. Contrary to what some people think, you cannot learn that in a weekend. You can pick up some basics for sure but there is no way you'll convince me that magically turns into a professional competency. It goes further. The professional accountant has to know a little about a lot, well beyond number crunching. It's the only way that numbers can be brought to life in the context of problem solving.

If we're going to focus on the question of specialization then I argue that what we should be talking about is mastery. That is particularly important in the context of information technology where there is as much art as there is science.

For example, we often hear about 'elegant code.' That's art. We increasingly hear about design simplicity. That requires an artistic touch. If my observations are worth anything, then mastery and art go hand in hand. You don't do your best work without first mastering a craft or skill. We see this in numerous fields like cooking, painting, sculpture, music, literature, film - anything where there is a degree of creativity involved. And those who are true masters of their art know that you never stop learning.

Beyond that, I see a shifting of the sands in a different direction. Reed alludes to a part of that shift when talking about the need to acquire expertise in vertical markets. There is a reason why Workday has steadfastly stayed with service based businesses and specifically excludes itself from competing for manufacturing business. They are chalk and cheese. But I am thinking well beyond vertical market knowledge, valuable though that may be.

Reed also talks about soft skills:

Soft skills are about bridging gaps with business and IT and speak a common language of outcomes and results. You now need an iterative ability on software projects. That means working alongside business users – and even customers and suppliers outside the enterprise. We can talk about happy phrases like lean, agile, and design thinking, and all three have things to offer. It’s really about building things that matter and solving problems.

It's a good point but one I'd argue is needed in any professional capacity. Reed almost got there when he said:

Can you have multiple specializations? Sure. Vinnie Mirchandani wrote a potent book called The New Polymath that looks at how technologies compound. The same could be applied to individuals, so it’s up to us to figure out the unique flavors – and how many specializations we can maintain.

What Reed missed in that analysis is the fact that Mirchandani called out a number of people he classifies as polymaths by virtue of them exercising multiple skills. Possibly the greatest example of all was da Vinci.  From Wikipedia:

...an Italian polymath whose areas of interest included invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. He has been variously called the father of paleontology, ichnology, and architecture, and is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time.[1] Sometimes credited with the inventions of the parachutehelicopter and tank,[2][3][4] his genius epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal.

Genius or well schooled? We know for example that in times past, educated Europeans were taught at least two and sometimes three or more languages. Today?

Has today's environment become so complex that specialists with some generalized knowledge are the ones who gain the most? I don't think so. I don't believe that is enough. Instead, I prefer to think that we need more polymaths. A great example comes from the globalization we see going on around us.

I've often argued that the US is the graveyard for (most) European software companies because the US market is very different to that found in Europe. I can now say that works both ways as vendors seek to establish a strong presence in Europe. Simply forklifting one business model to multiple markets doesn't work. Vendors are finding, as I have, that country specific knowledge and skills are a pre-requisite to any success.

You can call that culture if you wish but I believe it goes beyond that topic and is something you don't pick up by simply turning up and spending a few days or weeks observing what happens. There is learning involved at multiple levels that include business etiquette, language, dress codes and business models.

More prosaically, I suggest that it is not enough to learn something about a vertical market, you have to know what matters in markets. You have to speak the language of the mechanical engineer, domestic banker, house builder, pharmacist, clinician and on and on. You can only do that by seeking to learn something of the skills that go into those trades and professions. That's because I see an increasing need to stand in other people's shoes so that the best outcomes become a natural result of mutual learning, respect and collaboration.

Insisting on the supremacy of your core skill just ain't enough in the 21st century. Tacking on some soft skills won't cut it either.


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