The web industry is beginning to move into its adolescence. Fifteen years after its birth, and eight years after a dramatic industry reset, we’re beginning to move past the simple questions around how to execute ideas, and raising more questions about how best to execute them.
The public is now becoming reliant on the web as a major tool in everyday life, and even the most luddite audiences are beginning to use the products that only the earliest of adopters were using not long ago. The web is no longer a forum for geeks and deviants, but an unfathomably large, diverse, and mainstream medium, capable of handling nearly any form of information or communication on any topic.
The path of today’s web professional is to abandon every interest except one, and to pursue that one with an intense focus, learning more and more about less and less.
This growth and expansion has made the web a far more exciting concept, and the industry surrounding it has followed suit. Problems to tackle are greater in number, more varied in subject, and broader in their scope.
Yet the broader the web becomes, the more specialized its practitioners have grown. Once sufficient to be a “webmaster,” titles in the industry are now many, varied, and reflective of this increasing emphasis on specialization. Designers often now work solely in Photoshop, relying on front-end developers to build out HTML and CSS, a user experience architect to work through the structure, a design researcher to conduct user and industry research, a content strategist to craft the text, an SEO expert to wave a magic wand and criticize the front-end developer, a usability lead to test the design, a marketer, back-end developers to make it all work, and a project manager to make it all happen.
The path of today’s web professional is to abandon every interest except one, and to pursue that one with an intense focus, learning more and more about less and less. Despite the overwhelming discussion about interconnectedness on the web, this specialization has become a major measure of accomplishment in the industry. The educated generalist’s role has become as arcane as the term “webmaster” itself, and many generalists have adopted a specialty to conform and continue to advance.
That the web’s practitioners have specialized should come as no surprise. The education system, at least in America, has moved far from its liberal arts roots of offering a broad-based education on a variety of general subjects into a strongly pre-professional emphasis, turning great colleges and universities into trade schools. While it used to be common to delay selection of a broad major like “english” or “history”, today’s education encourages an eighteen year-old high school graduate to commit to four years of study in a major like “recreation, park, and tourism management,” marketing, or, closer to home, web design.
While there are, as need not be detailed, some advantages to the widespread availability of specialist practitioners, there are certainly major consequences.
The nature of the specialist, as the duly-credentialed expert in a given domain, is given to a territorial disposition. This is the senior developer who scoffs at the designer who makes a reasonable suggestion about how one might implement a discussed functionality. It’s the designer who rejects any feedback from a non-designer when it comes to a color palette. It’s the UX architect who is rubbed the wrong way when a designer deviates too far from the wireframe.
The specialist has trouble seeing the forest for the trees. As the generalist is working across various disciplines, she gets the opportunity to gain a broad understanding of the problem at hand, and can use her varied faculties to address it in a way that a specialist might never consider.
There is also a pragmatic versatility to the generalist. Smaller projects may require only one or two generalists to execute end-to-end, while the specialist structure could require many hands to complete even modest projects. In an agency environment, the generalist is able to step in and contribute in a variety of ways — perhaps working on front-end development one moment, back-end development another, and lending a hand to write web copy at another point.
Finally, the generalist can evenhandedly manage teams with varied, specialist skill sets. If you’ve ever been a designer working under a Marketing manager or a developer under a designer who doesn’t care about anything except how pretty the product is, this can seem obviously valuable.
While there will certainly be a need for specialists and professionals who dive deeply into discrete topics, innovation and creativity in problem solving are fueled by mental flexibility, the ability to collaborate, and multiple perspectives. Only the best-managed teams of specialists can muster these skills collectively, due to the pervasive single-mindedness of the specialists that compose them. Without the broadly-educated generalist’s input, the web industry risks a plateau of innovation that would threaten the industry as a whole.
A Problem of Cultivation
But where, in this tussock of specialists, could the potential archetype generalist develop? Traditional agencies currently hire only specialists — job descriptions often encourage a BFA for designers and a CS degree for developers these days. Becoming a one-man operation as a freelancer, and entrepreneur, or at a smaller organization doesn’t provide reasonable options for mentorship and education that are critical to professional growth early in a career.
The industry needs to change in this regard before generalists have been forced out or specialized entirely. Generalists need an entry-level option on the web, they need a career path that exposes them to varied disciplines on the web, and they need to be valued for the varied and qualitatively valuable contributions they make to their teams and projects.
The road to such an ideal is not entirely unpaved. To help envision a web industry that embraces both generalists and specialists, consider medicine. Generalists are able to diagnose and treat a wide variety of problems, and are able to handle complex issues of a broad scope. Specialists step in to consult or handle problems that require great depth in a particular area. Students become generalists through a rotation process, and then choose whether or not to specialize in a particular area. These roles have clear potential for an analogue in the web industry.
Being a young industry, we have the opportunity to act. If you’re an employer, remember that there are both positives and negatives to the design-school background of that junior design candidate, as well as a lot of potential in that psychology major applying into the UX role, or that physics major aspiring to be your newest developer. Have a role in your organization for the guy who can design and develop a solid application end-to-end, and who gets what makes products successful. If you’re a generalist, resist pressure to cast aside your other interests, and look for roles that suit the flexibility you can bring.
If left untreated, the broadening web will only expose this gap more, and we’ll fail to cultivate the innovators needed for the upcoming generations of the web and society. And we certainly don’t need more designers specializing in drop shadows and gradients.