SXSW 2010: Jacks of All Trades or Masters of One?

Friday, March 12, 2010 3:30pm
Brian Talbot, Viget Labs, Senior UX Designer
M. Jackson Wilkinson, Linkedin, Senior Product Designer

Session Description

The web originated with generalists – webmasters designing, building, and developing. Today, a web team can have a dozen different specialist roles, each highly-focused. With that in mind, what are the strengths of specialists and generalists, and when are each put to their best use on a project or in an organization?


There are basically three types of people who work on the web: technology, design, business. There are two bounds to each of these groups: specialist, generalists. A web designer generalists, for example, knows design but they really become the glue between design and backend development. A web designer specialist, for example, is trained in the graphic design discipline and is really good at taking designs or marketing and transforming them into a design.

The great debate: Specialist vs. Generalists

“Honestly, I’m shocked that in 2010 I’m still coming across ‘web designers’ who can’t code their own designs.” Elliot Stocks

One of the bigger questions is how do you develop a team and how many should be specialists, and how many should be generalists?

Some people refer to “T-shaped” people who have a broad skill base with a reasonable amount of depth, but in particular niches they excel the most.

Managers value a specialist because their influence is not manipulated by external constraints. They have the ability to develop something amazing where as a generalist can see the big picture of the project but not the specific milestone.

“High degrees of specialization may be rendering us unable to see the connections between the things we design and their consequences that ripple out into the biosphere and technosphere in ways we aren’t trained to see or may never fully understand” Terry Irwin

Specialists can take advantage of specific market opportunities. If a 24 hour lock-smith is the only one in your town, then he’s going to get all the requests and jobs when someone locks themselves out of their house at 4am.

Should I be a Specialist or a Generalist?

  • Do you feel the need to be the absolute best at something? (Yes: Specialist, No: Generalist)
  • Do you like handling things from start to finish? (Yes: Generalist, No: Specialist)
  • Do you like working alone on projects? (Yes: Generalist, No: Specialist)
  • Can you lean and understand foreign concepts quickly? (Yes: Generalist, No: Specialist)
  • Are you competitive and a perfectionist? (Yes: Specialist, No: Generalist)
  • Do you want to work on the new, hip, sexy projects? (Yes: Generalist, No: Specialist)
  • Do you need much variety in your career? (Yes: Generalist, No: Specialist)
  • Are you good at knowing when you’re in over your head? (Yes: Generalist, No: Specialist)
  • Is job security a priority for you? (Yes: Generalist, No: Specialist)
Should I hire a Specialist or a Generalist?
  • Are you a small organization? (Yes: Generalist, No: Specialist)
  • Do you have a decent process in place? (Yes: Specialist, No: Generalist)
  • Is that process more agile than waterfall? (Yes: Generalist, No: Specialist)
  • Is amazing execution your top priority? (Yes: Specialist, No: Generalist)
  • Can you keep a specialist busy for the length of the job? (Yes: Specialist, No: Generalist)
  • Do you need someone who can pitch in in various ways? (Yes: Generalist, No: Specialist)
  • Are you hiring a manager, executive, or very senior role? (Yes: Generalist, No: Specialist)
Questions and Answers
  • How do you stay trained as a Generalist or know what to study next when you’re trying to juggle so many different balls at the same time?
    One of the essential skills of a Generalist is having the ability to know where the industry is going, and act upon learning those things. It can be active as something you take on actively during your day job, or outside.
  • If you’re looking for someone senior in your team, does that mean if you’re a specialist you’re limiting your career?
    There have been articles that recommend this is the case because Generalists seem to get hired more often. With a specialist your goal is to become the “Super Senior Role” for job security.
  • Being that I’m a Generalist, I had to at one point become a Specialist at my work but later shifted back to a Generalist and am not taken as serious. What tips do you have to get around that?
    It’s good to surround yourself with peers who have your same interest. You always benefited from being a Generalist, even if they were old skills. So because of this at least you still had the previous experience.
  • If someone asks, “What do you do?” then what should I say aside from listing off current and past projects?
    Use broad statements such as, “I work on websites” and if someone wants to persue that further then give off some broad examples. This would all depend on who you’re talking to as well: potential client, or your mother. It’s sometimes easier to explain what the purpose of your work is, and not what your work actually is.
  • I have always been a Specialist, and I’m having a hard time letting go of everything being perfect, what recommendations do you have for me in letting go?
    It’s all about how you measure your own success. If you’re measuring it by the exact quality of your output in a quantitative state you’ll have problems. But if you measure it on milestones or success then you start to concentrate on how this will teach us in the future for the next project.
  • As an organization grows and moves from less Generalists and more Specialists what would you recommend to the Generalists that are getting cased aside in their company?
    The Generalist hopes to find themselves in a role where they’re keeping them engaged; rather that be a promotion or the ground level knowledge to do things. Other things it is important to have some Specialists and some Generalists because if you’re part of a meeting where you have the overview it makes the glue.
  • How do you identify if someone is a legit enough Specialist in your company although they’re referring to themselves as a Generalist?
    Experimentation would be the best bet as you can assign then a project to see how deep they can go into it, and how successful the outcome is. Of course this is all reliant on your organization itself.
  • Do you have any experience with large clients who have lots of Generalists when trying to convince them to bring in more people who’re Specialists?
    You as the consultant should take on that as part of their mission to convince them they need these Specialists.
  • Sometimes I see job descriptions that seem to need extremely specific things. However, HR doesn’t care if you want a well-rounded Generalist?
    It’s more of a political battle and if you have the ability to tweak the job description. Perhaps you list the Major (required) needs, but then also have some Minor (optional) ones.

More Information


Posted in Geeky, SXSW 2010.

One Comment

  1. Daniel,

    Thanks so much for sharing these notes. I think you did a really good job of capturing the essential points. I know I really benefited from this because I was not able to attend SXSW. Thanks for capturing the questions and answers. That adds a lot of value to your session notes.

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