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Seeing the Forest for the Trees

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.

Unintended Consequences

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.

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Avatar of M. Jackson Wilkinson

I'm M. Jackson Wilkinson, a technologist, designer, speaker, educator, and writer in San Francisco. I'm the Founder of Kinsights. I'm from Philadelphia, went to Bowdoin College in Maine, root for the Phillies, and love to sing.

Entry posted from Pearson Square Apartment

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Comments

  1. I think you hit on some good points, but the generalist also gives rise to those that know nothing about something.

    Ideally, a generalist evolves out of expertise in one or more sub-disciplines of UX, design, back-end development, front-end development, project management, strategy, etc.

    But, as in engineering with systems engineering evolving for big engineering projects in the defense industry after World War II, maybe there is room for a generalist-type position within agencies or elsewhere. But it'll have to evolve naturally rather than academically, because the web isn't swayed by college degrees or training.

    I haven't seen a Ruby or Rails programming course at a major 4-year university, yet Viget uses it as its primary web development framework.

  2. I've found many people in my career who welcomed generalism. I studied philosophy in college and taught myself HTML and CSS because I enjoyed making Web pages. I found that having a diverse and unusual background of experience left employers intrigued and, sometimes, gave me something of an edge. I've only worked at two places in my career because both have been excellent, but I'm happy to report that there are at least significant pockets of our industry that are tremendously receptive to generalism.

    Do you have any concerns, though, about some of the fundamental limitations of generalism? There is certainly a significant scattering of tremendously talented professionals who produce amazing designs when they turn their hand to design, who pick up things like javascript and actionscript with facility, and who can excel at many disciplines without focusing on one.

    I, however, worked hard to get the chance to be a web designer, then I worked even harder to learn how to do it fairly well. I've worked hard to learn a lot of Flash and Actionscript in the last year. Honestly, though, some of my virtuosity as a CSS guy has suffered: I can't go quite as quickly or fluidly through a site slice as I did a year ago. The techniques just aren't as fresh in my mind, I'm not quite as up on the state of the art.

    All this is to say: to some degree, I feel that there's too much to know to be good at everything. The very scope of quality web work is larger than it used to be, and I suspect that it is harder on that basis alone to be a generalist in the same way that it was possible five years ago, or ten years ago.

  3. 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.”

    Agree very much with that statement. The challenge as a manager — wonder if you find that this is true since we've stopped working together — is to hire great generalists and not bullshit artists (I'm batting 1000 on that front), but also to know when to call in a specialist when specialization is truly needed.

  4. Very interesting post. I created my first website 14 years ago and have been working on the web professionally for just about 9 years. I consider myself to be a generalist.

    I have a degree in engineering and have been doing design work for a long time. I can and have created websites from the design through back end development. I understand it all and I can do it all. But the problem is every piece along the way there is a specialist that can do it better. My designs are no where as good as a designer, my mark-up isn't as clean as a front-end specialist, and my code is not nearly as optimized as developer's would be.

    This leaves me in a really unique position. I'm a valuable asset to any team I'm a part of because I can switch roles and fill in wherever the team is currently light on resources. But when it comes to landing a senior level position I seem to be lacking the in depth expertise to qualify me for the position.

    I do think this lack of focus is hurting my career and this generalist is looking to become a specialist. The problem is, in what?

  5. @Ahson: I'm not remotely advocating teaching things like Rails in an undergraduate degree program. In fact, I rather strongly oppose such ideas. I'd instead advocate a professional environment that hires good systems thinkers as developers (regardless of the undergraduate degree) and encourages them to explore other aspects of the field as well.

    @Nate: We both got into things before it was really possible to major in a highly-relevant field, so I certainly (as a music/philosophy major) get that. I don't think a generalist needs to be amazing at everything. The most important thing, in your case, is being able to understand when something is liable to be more challenging when it comes to the html/css buildout, and you can do that. A generalist could in fact have a specialization, but it's counterproductive to box that person in, and I fear a growing trend toward that kind of segmentation, especially as the newer crops of junior practitioners enter the field.

    @Kevin: I can't respond with first-hand managerial experience, unfortunately, but I think that's spot-on. I think that hiring specialists is important — you can't just rely on subcontractors if you're frequently in need of specialist skills — but differentiating between those specialists who bring something to to the team, rather than those who believe they're the only ones who can speak on a given subject, is crucial.

    @Kelly: I've felt that pain. Like in my response to Nate above, it can be okay to start to “specialize” in a particular area of interest, but the generalist-friendly organization will still let you contribute in real and significant/fulfilling ways in those other areas where you're knowledgeable. I don't do front-end development anymore, but the guys at Viget who do, with whom I have an awesome relationship, often ask me to weigh in on discussions around those topics.

  6. The nature of the specialist, as the duly-credentialed expert in a given domain, is given to a territorial disposition.”

    I see this as not a negative, but as a dutiful positive. Working as a team of specialists can yield turbulent moments but the end result can be worth those bumps along the way. Focused passion should not get in the way of your duty to work towards a common goal, but it should definitely not be washed away for the sake of academic rigmarole that champions taste-testing jobs for a living.

    Where I see generalist practices best applied to our industry is in the project management sector. As projects become more complex in their goals and objectives it makes sense for the project controllers (managers, coordinators, etc) to have a keen general sense of blockers, issues, and scoping of all the people involved in his/her project. One of the joys of working for Viget is the fact that we have project managers in place who not only know the business, but participate in the process just as much as they manage it.

    Specialization is a gift to the web, not a curse. Projects are not always “applications” just like ice cream isn't always chocolate. There are a lot of different components that make a product successful on the web, and the number will only grow as the internet users and the web itself matures.

    And that's really the problem here isn't it? Things like marketing, advertising, creative copywriting, complex visual design execution, etc are becoming more and more necessary on the web because people are USING the web. As more people use it as a mainstay in their lives the more it will have to shift and grow to receive these disciplines. That is the nature of business. The web is becoming less the academic tool and more the consumer paradise. This also, is the nature of popular things.

    Specialization is necessity. As a designer who designs for both online and offline engagements I can testify that I don't have the time to both succeed in my role as a designer while also learning to be a developer. Even saying it sounds silly. It generalizes the jobs to the point of mediocrity. Just as being a successful designer isn't all about “drop shadows and gradients” as you put it, I'm guessing development isn't only about lines of code and bug checking.

    It's really hard for a generalist to make a claim that being a generalist is good for the web industry when they have not fully vetted each of the disciplines they wish to claim they are capable of performing. There lies the enigma.

    At the end of the day you end up with a generalist who generalizes.

  7. For just these reasons I chose a degree at Virginia Tech called inter-disciplinary studies. Where formal CS and Math are in no way equivalent to a trade school, they are both very, very specific. In addition, other majors would reject course requests from students not within their own major. IDST afforded me the ability to take courses from almost any of the colleges. Perhaps degrees of this nature are available to aid the generalist in academia.

    I like the idea of a rotation, as you mentioned with regard to medical students. I'm curious if it would be possible to do within the right setting. Given an agency with design and development (and other facets, of course), could a designer became a pseudo-intern with the development team. The intended effect being the benefits of a generalist as you have outlined them, without an expectation of performing on par with the specialists.

  8. @Owen: I in fact said that specialization is an important necessity, both in the post and in the comments, which I think takes care of most of your comment. My primary assertion is that generalization (either soft generalization, like a designer who has been exposed to development, or hard generalization where someone has significant exposure to lots of areas) is also very valuable.

    That you brought up being a PM is useful: project management can itself be a specialization to which many generalists are well-suited, though others aren't. I've been there, and I'm not. Some are, and that's great, and it's awesome when a PM does have exposure to many aspects of the trade, but the PM also needs to be content rarely getting to execute any of the work and have all of the qualities that make for a great PM.

    n.b.: Generalizations aren't usually bad things. Only when they're misused.

  9. I'll join others in providing a bit of my background: I'm the original Viget generalist. I was our first designer, front-end developer (yay nested tables!), and UX guy (before there was such a thing). I wrote lots of (bad) code, managed projects, and watered the plants. Now I just water the plants sometimes.

    In the only job I had before Viget I was a developer at a client site during the day and did design work at another client site at night. At UVa I majored in engineering and minored in studio art. I wanted to work in the web industry because it was a mix of tech, design, and business — 3 things my generalist brain was interested in.

    As Viget's grown from 4 to 40 over the past 10 years I can say with certainty a core element of our success has been specialization.

    When we started, developers used to code in “whatever language was best for the client,” so they spent more time wrangling with syntax than solving problems. Specializing in Ruby/Rails has been essential to the growth of individuals and the team, most recognizable in the quality of the work we do these days.

    Designers used to double as UX architects, and it wasn't until the past few years that we started hiring people who focus (almost) exclusively on UX. Now, the UX team solves really challenging problems that our generalist designers never could have. At the same time, our design work has improved as the designers have focused on design.

    PMs used to do a little of everything, filling gaps as needed. The result? They never had the time to focus on really improving the engagement / project management process. We've since been able to improve immensely over the past few years with great results.

    I'm not disagreeing with the value of having a varied background of skills and experience. Designers who can do build-out and understand the fundamentals of how the backend works are more likely to design a UI that works on the first try. Developers with good UX instincts can build quality apps more independently and quickly. PMs who have built sites themselves are better equipped to manage schedules, collaborate with clients, and provide valuable input. It's a perpetual evolution, but I'd like to think we've found a good balance at Viget.

    That said, specialization is an important aspect of career advancement. I've helped hire ~50 web professionals at Viget, and evaluated closely maybe 20x that number. Even though we have lots of versatile people, “too much of a generalist” has been a common theme when tossing out resumes, especially people later in their careers. It's a dangerous path to go down for some people, and hard to recover from if “generalist” isn't working out in the job hunt.

    The real measure is just being great at something. If you're a generalist because you can't decide what you're passionate about or you don't have the dedication / work ethic to become an expert, that's bad. If you're capable of specializing enough to become great at something specific while still maintaining a passion for learning new things and expanding your “general” skill set, that's great. If you think you can be truly great at lots of things, you're probably kidding yourself.

    Maintain a healthy respect for, interest in, and understanding of what your teammates are doing — even dabble a bit and get your hands dirty — but for goodness sake, be great at something.

  10. I'm glad you pointed this out, but it doesn't feel like an issue that's unique to the web. In any industry you'll find people who began as generalists jumping between various roles, but fall into specialist positions when they move “up” to larger companies and projects.

    To effectively and repeatedly run successful projects, your best bet is to have people who do X task well and who do X task consistently, all the time. A small team benefits immensely from a member who can wear all the hats, but this individual's output becomes less valuable on a Big Team working on the Big Project. Mid-to-large agencies can manage, educate, and monetize specialists more easily than they can generalists.

    At Viget, we have designers working week-in, week-out on the same comps at times - is this something a generalist would be happy doing? Is this something that, as a manager, you'd task a generalist to do if a specialized designer was also available? Once a company is getting 40+ hours a week of X work, they (arguably) need to seek out someone who can repeatedly do that work and enjoy it. They need to be able to say, “Okay, we've got X work handled now.”

    This seems like the nature of agency - why else would individuals group together in clumps of 30 to work, except to find other individuals who fill in for their own weaknesses? Size begets specialization, at the cost of individual flexibility and oversight.

    I think that generalists, as individuals, can be more productive, have more fun, and make better decisions than specialists, and they're also more resistant to sweeping industry changes. These are the pros of specialization, but the con might be that you can't have your cake and eat it too: By rejecting the principle that “agencies” form around, generalists might find agencies a poor fit.

  11. > I'm guessing development isn't only about lines of code and bug checking.

    @Owen: actually, that's pretty much it.

    I find myself nodding my head and shaking it in about equal proportion to this article. There is a place for generalists in today's web, but it requires generalists to be incredible in many areas. The place for the competent generalist is shrinking, which I don't think is a bad thing.

    I find myself agreeing in part because I am a generalist. At Viget, I've developed many web applications, both from the front-end and back-end, translated a site from English to Spanish, done a voice-over for a Flash tutorial, done system administration, helped manage projects, helped write sales proposals, managed subordinates, and been involved in creating work processes. I love being the guy who can do all this. There's a great feeling of accomplishment in being a person that can pitch in wherever you're needed.

    But, first and foremost, I'm a fantastic developer. Without that core, I couldn't do the rest of this. I'm ok at these other things - well, except Spanish, which I speak like a 4-year-old - but I wouldn't employ myself to do any of them alone.

    I appreciate generalists, and strive to be one myself. However, I think approaching any field as a generalist first might be a mistake; approaching a field as someone with a passion and talent for something and then broadening your scope as you dive deeper into that field has proven worthwhile to me.

  12. This is a bit of a tangent off the main point of the article, but I have to ask.

    Is the movement toward specialization primarily something one sees in design agencies at this point? I ask because I haven't had the same experience in the public sector.

    I've been developing websites in some capacity since about 1994 and professionally for about the past 12 years. So you could certainly call me a generalist since that's the environment in which I “grew up.” But there's no way to move beyond that in my current employment, even if I wanted to. My organization does all of our development in-house and only recently committed to budgeting for a second web developer (only part-time at that) — and certainly not for a lack of me trying.

    Hell, I'm aware of several government agencies in my state who still have someone with little web experience running their website - often a communications manager or someone versed in PR, journalism, or maybe print graphic design if they're lucky.

    I can't even imagine asking for a budget that would support all of these specialized positions (UX/IA, graphic designer, front-end coding, back-end), regardless of the potential benefits of having people who know a lot about a little.

    Maybe it just depends on where one is looking for a job, but I don't see any shortage of the generalist-type web position in my sector.

  13. The fact is that in some domains is good to be a generalist but in others its better to be a specialist. I for example can say that am a generalist and this is not because I wanted this but because of what life offered me. I came to the conclusion that is much better to be knowledgeable in more than one domain if you to be future proof. It is impossible to know if what you are doing right now can last forever or not and in case that something unexpected occurs is better to have something else at hand.

  14. Всех с наступающим Новым Годом!!!

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