Specialization, an excuse for laziness and indifference?


In my previous post, I talked about specialized vs. generalist programmers and I concluded that there’s no clear answer when it comes to whether someone should be a generalist or a specialized programmer. While I advocated a balanced specialized vs. generalist approach, I think it all boils down to the personality of the developer. What is clear to me though is that specialization can be used as a good excuse for laziness and that’s not a good attribute to have in a high performing team.

As programmers, I’m sure we all heard quotes like “Oh, I’m a server side developer, I can’t do UI”, or “I’m an object-oriented Java guy, I can’t deal with JavaScript” or “I’m a UX guy, I don’t know how to work with databases” or worse “I’m not a tester, don’t ask me write tests”. These are unfortunate statements from people who claim to be programmers. They are basically saying “I’m lazy, I want to cruise along my comfort zone and don’t ask me to do something new where I might need to challenge myself”. Programmers like these bring down not only themselves but the whole team as well.

It’s very hard to be a rock star server side developer and also have great UX design skills, so I’m not advocating that everyone should be great in everything, that’s impossible. What I’m advocating though is that every developer should be comfortable with every part of the software development process. Sure, you can be an expert in database design but if the UX team needs help, you should have no problem in jumping in and helping with some UI work. At some point in development cycle if QA engineers fall behind, you should have no problem in writing and automating good tests for them.

Software development is a team activity. Users do not care who built the software or how the software was built or who was the frontend or backend developer. All they care is whether the software works as a whole and whether it solves a problem they care about. Given that, good programmers need to have the mindset to work on the software as a whole, end-to-end. They need to chip in and help out in any way they can. Usually, they will help with their specialized knowledge and skills in their specialized corner but more often than not, they will need to take a generalist approach and help in areas that they might not be comfortable with.

Another unfortunate side affect of specialization is that it breeds indifference. When a server side developer realizes that the UI of the product is a little off, he usually does not care because in his specialized mindset, it’s the UX designer’s job to get that right. Worse, even when he cares and he raises his concern about the awful UI, he usually gets the usual “This is UX’s job, don’t worry about it” kind of response. Either way, you end up with mediocre sub-parts of a product that make up a mediocre product and in the ends, users see a mediocre product as a whole and everybody loses.

Next time you hear a programmer say “Sorry I’m not X, so I can’t do Y”, tell them to stop being lazy and help the team out. Don’t let them use their specialized title as an excuse for laziness because their laziness will eventually affect the team and the last thing you want to be part of is a lazy bunch of developers that accomplish nothing. And never ever let someone tell you that “Quality/UX/performance is my job, don’t worry about it”. It’s team’s responsibility to get a good product out as a whole and every person is equally responsible of the every part of the product.

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