Archive for April, 2011

Specialization is for Insects

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Recently, for a variety of reasons, I’ve been asked about my background. It’s a question that can take some time to answer. To answer why, allow me to share one of my favorite quotes by Robert A. Heinlein:

Specialization is for Insects

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I can only do about half of these myself, but I’ve always agreed with the sentiment. Back in college my advisors all explained why it is important in one’s career to specialize. But I’ve always chosen breadth over depth. My ideal has never been the specialist, but rather, the synergist – someone who can combine multiple skills and talents to come up with creative and unique solutions to problems.

Some would argue that when one tries to do many things, it becomes impossible to do any of them well. This is not true. What is true, is that if you do not specialize, it becomes impossible to be the very best at something. I know this, because for a time in my career I did specialize in a specific area of technology and became one of the best at it anywhere. Now, I can safely say that I am not the best at anything. But it does not mean I don’t do a lot of things very well.

What might Heinlein add to his list if he were writing for today’s technical society?

A human being should also be able start and run a company, speak in front of a group (any size), write a book, film and edit a video, plan an event, write and place an ad, teach a class, read or write a financial statement, manage investments, work with spreadsheets, write production quality code (on several platforms and in multiple languages), handle a TV or radio interview, mentor a kid, build a computer, wire a network, play an instrument, configure a firewall, architect a complex software system.

Ok, that might not be his list, but it is at least part of mine. It turns out that if you spend time doing a lot of different things over enough years, you can actually become surprisingly good at them. You can even find connections – ways different knowledge sets overlap – that a specialist might never see.

So if you are still early in your career, I encourage you to create your own list. Don’t limit yourself to the confines of what you are taught in school or at work, or what you think you are supposed to be learning. And please don’t limit yourself just to technology – there’s a lot more going on out there.

And if you’re visiting this site to gain some insight into my background, suffice to say – it’s a long story. I like to think that were it possible for me to meet Heinlein today, he would, after some conversation, judge me to be a human being. Coming from him, I would consider it the highest of compliments.