Generalist vs. Specialist Programmer

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One question that I keep wondering lately is whether a programmer needs to specialize in a small subset of programming languages and a small subset of problem types and be really really good at it or whether it is better to try many different languages and problems and be a generalist? It’s a complex topic and the answer depends on a whole lot of factors that I’ll try to explore in this post.

Specialization camp argues that if you want to be really good at something, you have to specialize. Instead of trying to learn and do everything in a mediocre way, you pick a language (eg. Java) and a small subset of problems (eg. Server side development with JEE) and you become really really good at it. There’s no shortage of specialized problems and by being an expert in your area, you have better chance to differentiate and establish yourself as a domain expert.

Generalists, on the other hand, argue that there are a lot of different types of problems with diverse solutions and a good programmer needs to have a generalist view and tool-set and be able to work on any part of the problem. By not limiting yourself to a small niche area, you keep your mind and options open, keep challenging yourself with diverse problems and get better at problem solving which is the essence of programming.

I can definitely sympathize with the specialization camp. At Adobe where I spent 6.5 years, I was a specialist myself. I spent all my time and energy on server side Java projects and towards the end of my time there, it felt good to really know what I was talking about. In order to be able to say “I’m an expert at X”, you need to put time and energy into specializing into X and that usually happens at the expense of losing some diversity in skill sets and problems to work on. One drawback is that by specializing, you put all your eggs in the same basket. Technology changes very fast and what’s hot today is old news tomorrow. The cool new technology you specialized in might be irrelevant only few years later and it’s something to keep in mind.

On the flip side, I can see the generalist argument as well. Since I joined to Skype last year, I had the chance to get out of my comfort zone and worked on projects in C#/.NET, Node.js and Windows Phone. It was hard to switch from server side Java development to client-side Windows Phone C# development but in the end, I felt like the effort was well worth it. Now, the world is not just Java vs. non-Java to me and rather it’s a world of diverse problems that can have diverse solutions and I can be part of all those solutions as long as I put the time and effort into it. I can’t say “I’m an expert in Node.js” yet but that’s OK, I can solve a lot of interesting problems in a quick way with Node.js without being an expert.

Pros and cons of specialization vs. generalist are clear and I don’t think there’s a right answer. In the end, it all depends on your personality as a programmer. Some programmers like to deep dive in the same type of problems for a long time and get really good at solving those types of problems. Some like the diversity and the thrill of the unknown that comes with a generalist approach.

I personally like a balanced approach where I try to specialize in a few areas so I feel like I know some things really well but I also try to stay as general as possible. If I’m working on a server side project now, next time, I try to pick a client side project. This way, I try to stay challenged and not get comfortable in one area at the expense of everything else.

No matter what you want to do as a programmer, I think it’s good to be aware of the pros and cons of each approach and make an informed decision.

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3 thoughts on “Generalist vs. Specialist Programmer

  1. Wow !! I was thinking about this issue for quite some days and just thought to google it but felt good that someone has written about exactly what i was looking for. Thanks for that 🙂 I am currently looking for my masters thesis topic so this time is quite crucial as thesis normally defines your next immediate career. By expertise I am an Android developer but again I want to be a ‘generalist programmer’. Recently I started learning python, Django and worked on JS projects as well. But the problem is that the jobs are not so generic where you get chance of working on full-stack. Jobs posted are always like Front-end developer/Android Developer/Back-end Developer and you need to be real good and must have a portfolio to apply for such jobs. I will definitely stick to my primary expertise i.e Android but I also want to get flavor of web back-end and APIs development along with client-end development. Let’s hope for good 🙂

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