We’re all generalists to some degree

In one exercise during our life-drawing classes at Uni, every 3 minutes or so, without changing canvas, we would have to choose a different drawing tool, either charcoal or brush or something else. This really irritated students because it made them feel out of control, but that was when everybody learned the most. Our teacher’s idea was that if you want to keep on top of your game, you have to stay out of your comfort zone, because to improve at your craft, you have to keep learning and if you aren’t challenged, you’re not learning.

Some time ago I was sitting in a pub with two excellent developer-friends of mine. During a little of our usual banter they both felt the need to instil in me some wisdom: “You can’t be both a great designer and developer at the same time. You have to focus on one thing. That’s how you become really good at something, you specialise”.

The “generalist versus specialist” debate keeps coming up in our industry. It is often conducted by the throwing around of all or nothing arguments, when in reality most of us operate across the spectrum between specialism and generalism. Some of us do work that varies lots, some of us do work within a specific field. I think that both of these roles are equally important. But even if you’re a specialist, it’s common in our industry that every now and then you have to do something outside of your specific area of expertise.

This is not the assembly line

The local agency has a front-end development and a design team. When the design phase is finished, the PSDs get handed over to the frontend development team. The assigned developer starts working on it and notices some loose ends. He asks himself why the designer didn’t use a grid, why the headings are in different sizes on every page and how he’s supposed to implement a 3 column layout for smart-phone screens?

The developer talks to their manager about these issues, which he feels are important. But he’s told to get on with it because the designs are signed off. Since the management doesn’t seem to care that there are real issues with the product, why should he care? If your opinions in a project are ignored on what you think are important matters, it’s likely that you’ll loose any passion you might have had for it and the outcome will suffer.

What should have happened is that the designer and developer work as a team, from the start. Too often have I worked within organisations where the process of making websites is similar to that of an assembly line – the product gets handed over from department to department without much communication between them. That might work for producing cars where most of the intellectual work has been completed before the production stage. But all parts of making websites are intellectual tasks that overlap. That’s why these separations between departments hurt our industry, they are more suited for processes that don’t overlap. It’s also why we need people with generalist knowledge to bridge those gaps and to foster communication across departments.

What I’m trying to say is that every web professional should have generalist knowledge to some degree (and I don’t know one who doesn’t, to some degree at least). If you’re a designer you should know about HTML and CSS and if you’re a developer you should have at least some awareness of design and user-experience. How else can you achieve anything in this industry where every part of the process is so interconnected?

Getting out of your comfort zone

Life drawing can make you feel terribly insecure and in those sessions at Uni we coped by playing it safe, drawing in a way that was familiar to us. In those 3-minute exercises that just wasn’t possible because nobody draws like that. Instead of working towards an image that we could picture in our head with a technique that we already knew, we were forced to try charcoal instead, to use a big canvas using our whole arm, or to draw on a very small scale. We learned that it’s ok to feel insecure, that it’s not that scary to try out another way, that we could learn and achieve much more by being curious rather than working towards this expectation of what our picture should look like. As web-professionals we’re constantly faced with the unknown and if embrace them we grow.

At the place were I work, we have an informal way of encouraging generalisation (within reason). Provided that we aren’t rushing for a deadline. My colleague, who does not usually write much JavaScript is writing some for our WebApp. If it helps he asks for advice. It probably would have taken less time if a front-end developer had done it, but he learns something and the person giving advice learns something by talking about it. What could be more important to a business than a motivated employee who is eager to learn beyond his department, and enjoys what he does? People like that take matters in their own hands and push a business forward. For these reasons we should embrace generalism, individuals and organisations alike.

PS: You should probably also check out this excellent episode of Let’s make mistakes where hosts Mike and Leah talk to Jared Spool talk about the same thing.

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