Is There Room for Generalists in Tech?

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It’s an old adage that, in an industry as competitive and crowded as tech, only the specialists survive. Startups with a laser focus on a particular product need developers and engineers with deep knowledge of a narrow skill set; tech giants such as Apple and Google want those same masters to build out new lines of business, such as self-driving automobiles.

There’s comparatively little room in such a world, some would argue, for generalists: It’s simply not worth knowing a little something about everything, when you can prove adept at one (very lucrative) thing.

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Those assertions aside, generalists still have their place in tech. Startups that can’t afford to hire separate IT and management staff (or an outside firm to handle IT duties) often rely on generalists who can wear multiple hats; in those situations, it’s not uncommon to find a CFO or CMO who also codes or troubleshoots IT problems. In larger firms with more than enough resources and staff to cover all positions, the need for generalists is much more abstract; someone not trained in a specific way of thinking is capable (at least in theory) of working through problems in unconventional ways.

At Adobe’s Marketing Summit this week, some executives highlighted the advantages of hiring people without industry-specific experience.

“Early on, one of my key points to the talent team was no cable experience. I don’t want anybody that’s been in cable forever.” Rob Roy, Group VP of eCommerce and Interactive Marketing for Time Warner Cable, told the audience at the event. “I think having that general understanding of how the business runs end-to-end really gives you an appreciation for the specific function that you’re working on, and I think it makes you more well-rounded.”

Other executives agreed. “I like to put it as ‘mindset over skill set,’” said Todd Copeland, General Manager for Digital at National Australia Bank. “The people that you need are not necessarily the ones that you think of as being in the traditional mold.” His own hires have recently come from media companies and other, non-financial verticals.

How does that sort of advice translate for tech companies? If you want to build a superior piece of software or hardware, hire a specialist who’s one of the best at what they do; but if you want to solve strategic problems, or just figure out how to roll out a product to the world, sometimes a generalist is your best option.

For tech pros, a generalist mindset can also help you weather the industry’s twists and turns. A willingness to learn and expand your skillset means you’re better prepared for strategic shifts than someone who might find their one fantastic skill outmoded.

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