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Generalist or Specialist

This morning I read Greg Jorgensen’s post entitled “The things you need to know to do web development” and was in awe at the dizzying array of moving pieces that are part of Web development these days.

As a disclaimer, my day job involves WPF desktop development for a medical device (a.k.a. nothing involving the Web stack). I’ve made a modest effort to connect with peers in the community and stay tuned to .NET Rocks! to at least know what people mean when they name-drop the latest framework or tool. I’ve even got a side project in the works where I’m getting familiar with Bootstrap 3.

Still, I have to admit it’s a little intimidating trying to dip my toes back into the waters. Don’t get me wrong; the Web (and tools) have come so far in the last several decades. I wax nostalgic about cutting my teeth with Notepad, Netscape Navigator, and a JavaScript book I bought from Barnes & Noble; yet at the same time I chuckle (sometimes audibly) when I see what can be done in one line of markup that would have taken hours to make work in older technology.


The aforementioned post has such an obscenely long list of tech/tools, I felt compelled to share the gist of it with my wife, providing a bit of context about how things were when I started back in the late 90s. She said it reminded her of how small villages work: You can’t just take everything on by yourself. For example, you can’t flood your rice paddy without coordinating with your neighbors. Likewise, you can’t be an expert at growing corn and forging steel (that’s what the town blacksmith is for).

Greg’s article does allude to the idea that if he were starting from scratch, it would take a long time to even master a fraction of the tools he mentioned. I suppose that’s why we have teams of people to build sites. That got me thinking about the whole generalist vs. specialist argument.

Anecdotally if you lined up a panel of experts, you’d get mixed opinions about whether it’s beneficial or costly to specialize in an area. Should you double-down and really excel in an area, or should you be a jack of all trades and a master of none? Part of me believes there’s no simple equation that when solved will give you a clear answer: It’s dependent on so many factors, some of which are time-sensitive.

Depending on how confident I’m feeling on a given day, I’m subject to the Forer effect. In other words, someone’s well-crafted arguments can lead me to believe that I’m making a good decision to specialize in a technology that is helping positively impact people’s lives (in a heavily regulated industry); yet, another set of arguments make me question whether I’m going to have to repay a significant opportunity cost by staying away from Web development for so long.

To close in a light-hearted manner, I’ll share a partial transcript of a stand-up routine by Brian Scott McFadden my wife said my tirade reminded her of. (Disclaimer: The intent is to share the humor of wanting mutually exclusive traits, not to make any statement about how a particular gender thinks/feels.)

Women want a man who’s ambitious — an achiever who successful both professionally and financially… who’s not materialistic.

Women want a man who is solid, steady, consistent, and reliable… who is fun, unpredictable, and spontaneous.

Women want a strong-willed decisive man who takes a stand and doesn’t waver… as long as he’s flexible, open-minded, and can admit when he’s wrong.

Women want a realist… who’s romantic. A guy who’s serious, yet playful — who’s confident, but humble.

Women want a man who is career-driven… but family-oriented.

Women also want a man who’s smart but not nerdy, caring but not needy, affectionate but not clingy, protective but not possessive, emotional but not neurotic, funny but not a clown, dominant but not domineering, and in control but not controlling.

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