According to Wikipedia, the phrase ”Jack of all trades”, has been around since the 1600s. It was originally a compliment to someone for their knowledge in many areas. However, at some point, an additional line, “master of none”, was added to give a negative connotation to the individual being referred to.
Fortunately, those two lines together were extended further to create a rhyme: “
Jack of all trades master of none, though often times better than master of one.”
Playing the field
I studied a bit of Biology, then did a cabin crew course, then moved into software programming. In my two years of software development, I have done a bit of low-level , functional, object-oriented, procedural programming. A bit of game, mobile and web developments. I also played around in the devops and unix/linux space. I’m currently in the blockchain space. Am I an expert in any of the above? NO.
There are two trends seen in the professional life cycle. Those who learn a specific skill and once they have reached a saturated level, develop a curiosity to learn associated skills too. Then there are those who learn a number of skills at the start of their career and narrow their skills down to one specific skill as they move up the professional ladder. Each has its pros and cons.
Since I fall among the first group – generalist, I will be talking about that.
Who is a generalist (Jack of all trades)?
In the software industry, it is someone who not only knows how the application’s code works, but who can also do low-level UNIX debugging of your web server processes, analyse your RDBMS’s configuration for potential performance bottlenecks, and check your network’s configuration for hard-to-find issues. More importantly, after finding the problem, the “Jack of all trades” can quickly make architecture and design decisions, implement code fixes and deploy a new fixed system to production.
The ability to be flexible in the roles you fulfill is an attribute that many people don’t understand the value of. That’s why I believe that generalist are rare and, therefore, precious. To be a proper generalist one has to have the ability to quickly learn a new skill from zero to good in a short time span. Due to this, most people tend to rather specialise as it’s gradual and steady pace learning.
Benefits of being a generalist
Your multiple skill set makes your profile highly sellable in the market and you become a professional chameleon – constantly changing the color of your skin to blend in with your environment in order to deal with a situation. You become highly productive as your multiple skills enable you to move across organisations, teams or projects – hence you will stay busy for most of your career. Generalists are also more open to change as their way of life allows for massive change.
And the downside
It doesn’t mean that being a generalist has no cons. Some of the cons that you have to face is that you could end up having too much to handle, which in turn may cause serious work burnout and ironically result in a chain of non-productive days. You may also end up with no exclusive projects and weak project management.
Best of both worlds
Generalist tend to find it difficult adhering to a time schedule, sitting still in class or reading large volumes. This is because we work at the pace that our brain is thinking, rather than stick to someone else’s curriculum. It’s not that we get bored easily, it’s really the inspiration ball that gets passed somewhere else and we passionately follow it wherever it goes, no matter how incomplete our previous task was. That’s why there is a saying that someone has to do the boring work, that’s when a specialist comes into play.
Timothy Ferriss, an entrepreneur and author of the “4-hour” themed self-help books had this to say about the generalist approach:
“In a world of dogmatic specialists, it’s the generalist who ends up running the show.”
Is the CEO a better accountant than the CFO or CPA? Was Steve Jobs a better programmer than the top coders at Apple?
No, but he had a broad range of skills and saw the unseen interconnectedness.
As technology becomes a commodity with the democratisation of information, it’s the big-picture generalists who will predict, innovate and rise to power fastest. There is a reason military ‘generals’ are called such.
Who are you?
Do you feel more comfortable while working with many different technologies without deeply diving into each one of them? Maybe you prefer to stick to one tool, language or framework and be a master of it?
Either way, it’s a matter of choice, strengths and weakness.
by Stephen Asiedu