Generalist or Specialist?
Q: As a software engineer, is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?
This is one of the questions I get asked the most. I remember I had the same one when I first started working. I wanted to make sure I was going in the right direction but had no idea what each path looked like. Now, I understand the tradeoffs between the two options. Here’s what you should keep in mind.
View From The Top
Both specialists and generalists exist at the highest levels of software engineering. They have similar levels of impact; they just work in different ways.
Generalists tend to get work done through others and lead large cross-org workstreams. These behaviors require them to have strong communication and leadership skills. Also, since they work through delegation, they scale themselves by growing others. Their impact comes from leveraging groups of engineers.
Specialists have a similar level of impact by using their domain knowledge. They solve problems that few others can in areas where technology gives them leverage (e.g. databases, distributed systems, AI). Specialists influence others indirectly and contribute to the technical strategy of their domain.
Since both paths support growth to Staff+ levels, what are the distinguishing factors to consider for career planning?
Each role requires different skill sets. Generalists should have strong system design and communication skills to be able to lead large initiatives. Meanwhile, specialists tend to rely less on others and must hone their domain expertise.
There are also clear differences in role mobility and promotion prospects. By definition, generalists can fit in more roles than specialists can, which can help keep options open. Not to mention that the generalist skill set aligns well with what is required for engineering management. On the other hand, promotions to the Senior Staff (IC7+) levels are more common for specialists since the complexity of their domain can prove they can solve problems no one else can.
The differences in role mobility and promotion prospects shouldn’t matter much until Staff+ levels. A senior engineer that has spent a lot of time focusing on databases can still have similar impact in a different domain. Likewise, generalists with the right opportunities should have no trouble getting to the Staff level.
How to Pick
Since there isn’t a clear winner, I’d pick based on the work you enjoy and what your strengths are. These two factors reinforce each other. If you lean into your strengths, your success will lead to more enjoyment. Similarly, the more you enjoy your work, the more time and energy you’ll spend which will develop your skills.
Consider your career planning as an explore-exploit tradeoff problem. At first, you should explore and try a little bit of everything. This sampling period will help you learn your strengths and what type of work you enjoy. After some time, you can then exploit this knowledge to pick a specialization or to stay a generalist.
For example, when I first started, I was most motivated by impact. I wore a ton of hats and did whatever my team needed most. Through this process, I sampled a lot of different work and realized I enjoyed being a generalist. At the same time, I received feedback that communication was a strength of mine. This experience made me confident that being a generalist is right for me.
It’s important to consider, but I wouldn’t stress much about this. Specialist and generalist behaviors aren’t mutually exclusive. I’ve worked with strong engineers that exhibit both. Once you identify as one, you aren’t pigeonholed into it. Although I’d say I’m more of a generalist, I’ve done some specialist work as well by working closely with domain experts.
Since this question comes up a lot, I’d like for this post to be a comprehensive reference material for others. If you have any follow-up questions, feel free to drop them in the comments. I will reply to everyone as usual.
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