Jay Fields is a software developer at DRW Trading. He has a passion for discovering and maturing innovative solutions. His most recent work has been in the Domain Specific Language space where he's delivered applications that empowered subject matter experts to write the business rules of the applications. He is also very interested in maturing software design through software testing. Jay is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 116 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Specialize In Something Relevant

11.20.2008
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If you read my blog entry on Language Specialization you might have concluded that I prefer generalists. If, in our industry, generalists were what the definition describes, then I would prefer generalists. Unfortunately, business software developers seem to have created their own definition of generalist.

generalist: a person competent in several different fields or activities

business software developing generalist: I know how to do the simplest tasks with many different languages/tools, but I can not be considered competent with any of them.
I blame Scott Ambler. To me anyway, it seems like the daft generalist movement started when Scott wrote Generalizing Specialists

Our industry has always been saturated by bad programmers. I'm on record stating that at least 50% of the people writing business software should find a new profession. The problem with bad developers is that they take good ideas and turn them in to monstrosities.

I remember reading Generalizing Specialists and being inspired. I thought Scott gave fantastic and relevant advice. Unfortunately, many bad or junior developers heard: Don't bother to deeply understand anything, instead, you're agile if you know a little about everything. Suddenly, when I started interviewing developers I ran into situations like this.
  • me: So, I see you have Erlang on your resume, how do you like the language?
  • candidate: I like it's concurrency handling, but I'm a bit weary of it's syntax.
  • me: (thinking - okay, do you have any original thoughts on Erlang?) I can understand those points of view, what problem were you trying to solve with Erlang and why did you think it was the right tool?
  • candidate: Oh, I really only got through the 2 minute tutorial, you know, hello world basically. But if you guys have Erlang projects you want me to work on I'm happy to, I'm a generalist, I like all languages.
  • me: Okay, so what language would you say you know the most about?
  • candidate: I don't bother to specialize, I do a little bit with each language, you know, hello world or whatever, so I can use the right tool for the job. That's the best part of being a generalist.
  • me: (thinking - this interview is already over) Okay, so tell me about the languages/tools you've had to use at your different jobs?
Inevitably, the candidate doesn't even have a deep understanding of the tools they've used at work, because they are too busy doing hello world in every language invented. They also love to say that they take the Pragmatic Programmers advice to extreme and 'learn' several languages a year.

The truth is, these generalists have little in the way of valuable knowledge. They provide their projects with little more knowledge than a Google search can bestow in 30 minutes. In short, they're worthless, if not destructive.

I don't actually blame Scott Ambler. In my opinion he was right then, and he's right now. Become a Generalizing Specialist is still the advice that I currently give developers.

Specializing in something makes you an asset to the team. If I'm building a Web 2.0 website, I want everyone to have an understanding of HTML, CSS, Javascript, Ruby, & SQL. However, I also want each team member to specialize in one of those areas. Knowing IE quirks is just as important as knowing how to optimize MySQL. And, I want to make sure I have team members that can get into the deep, dark corners of delivering highly effective software. That doesn't mean everyone needs to know what a straight join in MySQL does, but at least 1 person should. The rest of the team isn't entirely off the hook though, they better understand how to write basic SQL statements that are maintainable and at least semi-performant.

Becoming a Generalizing Specialist takes time, but the first step is becoming a Specialist. Once you deeply understand one language/tool, you can move on to the next relevant language/tool. How do you know when it's time to move on? When you start having answers to questions that people aren't asking. If you're constantly looking up answers to common questions, you aren't a specialist. However, if you start providing more (relevant) detail in your answers than people are looking for, you're on your way to possessing the deep understanding that a Specialist should have. At that point, it's probably time to start looking deeply into something else.

One painful mistake to look out for is specializing in something less relevant. If you work for a trading firm that writes only thick client applications, understanding why Chrome's Javascript VM is better than Firefox's Javascript VM is probably not the best use of your time. It's true that you may move on to a web application at some point, but by then your information will probably have become stale anyway. Stick to specializing in things that you work with day to day. Your language, your IDE, the Domain Specific Languages you use in your applications (regular expressions, SQL, LINQ, etc), or the frameworks you use (Spring, ASP.net, etc) are things you should specialize in to increase the value you provide to your team.

Eventually, you become competent with several different tools and languages. You've become a Generalizing Specialist and as such you are significantly more valuable to your team.
References
Published at DZone with permission of Jay Fields, author and DZone MVB. (source)

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Comments

Alex(JAlexoid) ... replied on Thu, 2008/11/20 - 4:35pm

[quote] If you're constantly looking up answers to common questions[/quote]

Well... I am constantly at a place where I have to give or the need for advice is necessary on concurrency issues and performance issues in Java, while  I sometimes forget* what methods those java.util classes use...
Since looking up the methods in java.util classes is a common question, does that clasify me as not a Java specialist?

* - actually, I just don't bother remembering all those, since IDE will/should give me all I need.

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