Generalist vs. Specialist

7 minutes, 1 link


Updated August 7, 2023

At some point, you’ll need to decide whether you want to branch out and learn additional languages and technologies, or double down and become an expert in one or two specific ones. Programmers can be successful in either path, so it mainly comes down to personal preference and some careful consideration about where you want to take your career.

Let’s look at each path in detail.

Going Broad

A programmer who views themself as a generalist typically wears many hats and will have an intermediate-to-advanced knowledge of many different complementary skill sets. They may work with many different programming languages, databases, and platforms. Their range of skills allows them to collaborate across multiple disciplines to solve customer problems.

confusion It’s worth noting that the term “generalist” does not mean “full stack,” even though the two terms are often conflated. While full-stack developers are considered generalists, you can still be a generalist within a vertical such as mobile development, game development, or systems programming.

Generalists typically cast a wide net, which gives them the ability to jump around to different projects, companies, and even industries throughout their career. They bring with them a broad set of experience because they’ve worked on many different projects and technology stacks. In some cases, they can bring experience from one project or industry over to another in order to solve problems in novel ways.

Because generalists carry such a diverse set of skills with them, they have the advantage of a larger job market and have an easier time finding work. Many companies prefer to look for candidates with a generalist skill set because they deal with constantly evolving requirements from customers. New projects arise from changing requirements, and companies are able to shift generalist developers from project to project without having to hire new programmers with a specific skill set.

More often than not, it’s a good idea to generalize your skill set during your career, but only after you’ve become comfortable in your first programming language. When you generalize, you are exposed to many different technologies and industries, but just because you’ve taken the generalist path does not mean you can’t specialize in one area. In fact, starting off as a generalist gives you the opportunity to try a number of different technologies before deciding which one you’d like to specialize in.

caution One thing generalists should consider is the need to stay up-to-date on multiple skill sets as the ecosystem for each technology evolves in parallel. Generalists may fall behind in one or more technologies if they don’t find time to practice those skills.

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Now, let’s look at the specialist option in more detail.

Going Deep

The specialist path is an option for those programmers who want to take a deep dive on a technology, effectively becoming an expert in one specific area. You may choose to specialize in a programming language, a database technology, or a field of computer science such as machine learning or algorithms. It can take years, sometimes decades, to reach an expert level, but once you do, you’re often rewarded with job security and higher salaries, because companies will compete for your skills if they’re in high demand.

exampleExamples of specialists include a computer vision expert working for an autonomous driving car company, someone who specializes in quantitative trading systems working at a hedge fund, a big data expert working for an IoT company, or even an expert in the Ruby programming language working for a company that has built their codebases on Ruby.

Specialists often have leverage when it comes to negotiating job offers and salary increases because their deep knowledge in a field may be considered a competitive advantage in certain industries.

Although specialists may not have trouble finding new work, the size of their overall job market may be much smaller than that of a generalist because there are fewer companies looking for their specific set of skills. This presents an interesting problem and something that should be considered when thinking about your career path: what if you specialize in the wrong thing?

There’s inherently more risk if you decide to specialize in a programming language or field of computer science because you’ll need to devote years of your life becoming an expert in one specific set of skills. If the industry evolves during that time, you may be putting energy into something that isn’t guaranteed to be in demand a few years from now.

That’s a calculated risk you’ll need to take when deciding what to specialize in, but if you understand a specific technology well enough to become an expert in the first place, you may be able to anticipate where the industry is headed and get a head start. When done right, specializing can be very lucrative for programmers.

confusion While most programmers think about specializing in a specific technology, it’s also possible to specialize in a specific industry. You may use different technologies as you jump from company to company within the same industry, such as healthcare or finance. Although you may not be an expert in the technology at a company, you bring a wealth of industry knowledge with you, which can be just as valuable. When it comes to hiring, a company may consider years of experience in an industry as important as years of experience with a technology.

Now that we’ve gone into detail about the technical path of your career, let’s look at another aspect: leadership.

Your Leadership Path

In the early stages of your career, you’re probably going to be focused on developing your technical skills first before thinking about any kind of leadership path. While it’s good to have a sense of where your career is heading from a technical perspective, it’s equally important to start thinking about your career from a leadership perspective.

At some point, usually after you’ve been in a senior engineering role for a while, you’ll reach an inflection point where you’ll need to decide if you want to stick with the technical track as an individual contributor (IC) or make the jump to the management track. There are excellent leadership opportunities in both paths, but it’s important to understand what those responsibilities look like as you think about the direction you want to take your career.

Here’s what the paths look like at a typical tech company.

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