By John Sonmez April 23, 2015

I’m Not Sure I Want To Be A Specialist

In this episode, I answer an email from a generalist who asked me – what if he doesn't want to be a specialist? Watch the video and find out what my thoughts are regarding specialization.

 

Full transcript:

John:               Hey, this is John Sonmez from simpleprogrammer.com. I’ve got an email here that I want to read to you and now I’ll try to do my best to answer it. It’s about a topic that I talk about a lot but there’s always some resistance to this topic, so I'm going to try and give a little bit more insight into this topic today.

This email is Xander. Xander says, “Hello John, thanks for all the free stuff.” Oh, apparently I had his name wrong in my mailing list. He said, “I just want to tell you my name is Xander.” I guess I had the wrong name on the email address. I did fix that for you, Xander. He says, “I’m still reading your book and it’s pretty good. Some stuff I was already doing. There are some stuff I should start doing and there are some stuff I’m doing that I could do better.” If you’re wondering about what is he talking about he’s talking about my Soft Skills book here. You can check that out if you’re interested. A lot of the topics are a lot of the stuff I talk about in these videos.

Anyway, he says, “One question though, you talk about being a specialist but what if that’s not what I want? I’m more of a generalist knowing a bit about a lot and a lot about a bit. I guess my current specialization is in C# which is not specialized enough by a long shot.” Good that you picked that up because that would be the first place I’d go. Yes, C# is not enough of a specialization. “I’m more of a generalist knowing a bit about a lot and a lot about a bit. I guess my current specialization-” oh wait a minute, I already said that.

“My current company specializes in not specializing” and he says, “Their words.” “I’m doing C# entity framework, SQL Server, and some HTML, CSS and Java Script. In my free time I looking at other technologies, software design, languages, NoSQL functional programming, etc. Are you telling me that I should be more focused on one technology? I get your point about specialization, but it sounds a bit boring too. If I specialize now that would be like creating a product before I have customers. No one is asking for my specialization now and I can only hope that there are buyers later on. Looking forward to your response.”

Okay, so there’s a couple of things here, right? I’m definitely still going to tell you specialize. I’ve got a new example. I always use this plumbing example of Mr. Garbage Disposal Fix It Man like if your garbage disposal breaks and you’ve got 3 different plumbers the ABC Plumbing and Joe’s Plumbing and you see Mr. Garbage Disposal Fix It Man who are you going to call? You’re going to call the specialist. I still stick to that but I’ve got a new one.

I was talking to this guy that actually does computer assisted image facial recognition. That’s his specialty in Python, so language and he teaches people how to do facial recognition or computer image recognition in Python. Now, you would think, okay, this is pretty specialized. This is way too specialized. He’s not going to have a lot of customers if he sells a book for $29 in this. It turns out that he quit his full time job just focusing on selling his book. He has enough income from selling this one book on this extreme specialty that he’s able to make that work.

I tell you this because if he can have that extreme of a specialty and not just find a job because think about it this way, if you’re a developer and you’re just looking for a job then you just need one person who’s interested in that specialty that wants to hire you. He’s got to find thousands of customers who would be interested in this very specialized niche. Whatever your niche is, whatever the specialty that you come up with, I won’t say whatever, but just about anything you can come up with, it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be very hard to narrow yourself down so much that you’re pigeonholed into a place where you’re not going to have customers, especially if you’re just looking for a job.

A caveat here would be if you’re in some rural area of Kansas and there’s only one employer. You’re going to have to pick the specialty or do whatever they’re doing. Aside from that if you have options a specialty is going to be a very good thing.

Now, with that said, does this mean that it’s the only thing that you can do? If you specialize and let’s say that you specialized into some deep specialization within C#, would that be the only thing that you could do or you specialize into specific platform or something like that? No. It’s not the only thing you could do. You could do a whole bunch of other things. The thing is when you market yourself, when you put on your resume, when you give your one liner, your elevator pitch of who you are and what you do you’re going to have a very nice concise message to say if you have a good specialty and that’s critical because when you go to a party and you go to a networking event and you shake hands and people ask who you are and what you do well you go off and you say, “Well, I do a little bit of C# and I do this. I’m also an expert in this.” They forget that.

When they have a guy that’s very, very specializes that says, “I do specifically this.” The next time they think about someone that they need for that specialty or someone who knows someone who’s looking to hire for that they remember you because you actually had in there enough specialty. That’s how you market yourself.

Now, when you get into a job are you just going to write performance enhanced SQL queries? No, you’re going to do something more than that. Just because you market yourself in one way doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing that you can do. When you hire a specialist to do something for you a lot of times they end up doing additional work as well. Don’t worry about that. You do have to have a clear concise message when you market yourself in a specialty is the way that you do that.

As you build an audience and you branch out, maybe you have multiple specialties and you can become more of a generalist but you want to, and I always say this, you want to be the big fish in the small pond. You want to be the small fish in the big pond. Eventually the small fish in the big pond can grow to fill that pond, but it takes a long, long, long time. If you try to just be a generalist it might take you extremely a long time to build up a reputation to be considered one of the best and to build up a name. If you pick a very, very targeted specialty you’re going to be able to build a name for yourself as a specialist, being the big fish in the small pond very, very quickly and that’s key. Once you’ve done that then you can borrow your name to go into a different specialty. You can borrow the credibility from your name and that’s key.

A lot of people still fight me on this, but I’ll keep on answering these emails because there’s still this resistance to specialize. I promise you it will be something that’s viable. I just one to bring up one more point that you brought up in your email which was that you feel like specialization will be boring.

Well, going really deep into one area is not boring. The thing is if you’re a generalist yeah, you get to work with a lot of different technologies and do a lot of different things, but when you specialize you get to learn the intricate details of things. As you become a master in this particular thing it opens up all these possibilities. There’s this whole wide world inside of a specialization. You get to work on really interesting projects when you’re a specialist. When you’re the guy that they call because no one else knows how to solve this problem, you get to see some really interesting problems and work on those.

Specialization is where it’s at. Don’t be a generalist. Think about how many famous generalists you know. You typically don’t. It’s specialists that you can identify and specialists are the people that you remember. They’re the ones that get paid more that get the better jobs and eventually they might grow with their name into becoming a generalist, but almost always someone who makes it big starts out as some kind of a specialist.

Hopefully that helps you. Don’t worry. Just go with it and you’ll see. Test it out. If you don’t believe me, test it out. Try being a specialist for a while. See what kind of results that you get. Give it a year of picking a really defined specialty and see what happens there. I know you’re going to get better results than you will trying to be a generalist. Hopefully that helps you again.

Take care and if you have a question for me just email me at john@simpleprogrammer.com. I’d love to answer your email on video and subscribe. Take care.

About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."