A Generalists Dilemma

Zan. December, 2022

4 minutes

by Neo Matsuoka from Photographers Index 1 (1985)

I've always been an incredibly curious person. I was definitely a 'why?' kid. The way I understand the world is through analysis and deconstruction. I've constantly been fascinated with the mechanics of how things work. Then after understanding something I wonder why things work that way instead of some other way? Looking back it makes a lot of sense that I ended up becoming a software person. The act of building software requires one to interrogate how the thing works: How can I model and represent the information and processes of the domain? How can I visually present this in the most effective way? How does it make people feel to interact with the thing I've built? How do I want them to feel? How can we build features that compose with emergent properties to create a more than the sum of its parts dynamic?

These questions cover the fields of: software engineering, programming & mathematics, design & visualisation, project management, psychology, philosophy, communication & writing, systems thinking, and aesthetics. I believe building any great piece of software requires deep thinking in all these fields. I formally studied to be a programmer and my core competencies are in software engineering but through exploring my interests in the space of software I've had the pleasure of diving into all of these fields. In this regard I like to consider myself a generalist.

The corporate world, even in modern software development breaks down teams into narrowly defined roles. You're a: developer, designer, project manager, UX person, whatever. I've never felt that I fit in with this model.

Experience has shown me that truly great software is built in a cross-discipline, holistic fashion. There's a level of anaemia[-1] that comes from defining yourself narrowly. All knowledge cross pollinates, and we need to be able to consider the task at hand from many perspectives.

Broadly defined, the aesthetics of a project are critically important. In big teams each individual contributor or team has a tiny slice to care about and the sum of these is often bland and unremarkable. Any product developed by lots of people is at serious risk of aesthetic dilution.

It's not all bad for large teams though. Projects with lots of people can certainly compete on: number of features, device support and enterprise integrations, but, they can't compete on feels. A prime example of this is the Microsoft suite of products. Everything is fully featured and interoperable giving the ecosystem sticking power in culmination, but each individual piece feels clunky and unstable. The Microsoft suite is convenient for big businesses but doesn't spark joy for end-users.

I'm starting to think that writing software that brings joy should be one of my life's guiding endeavours. I'm not content in a role where I can't have influence over the design, customer experience, product strategy and software architecture. Luckily there's one arena where being a generalist and thinking holistically is a huge advantage. Startups. The agile and volatile nature of startups combined with the resource constraints mean that everyone on the team has to wear many hats. It's not enough to be a strong programmer if you can't iterate on design and think about the customer experience.

For me, this bias towards being a generalist does come with drawbacks. The disciplines I'm interested in have incredible depth. I often feel like an imposter. It's an incredible challenge to keep going back to square one and approach new topics with the beginner's mindset. I often stumble into a failure mode of overwhelm, my brain circling on thoughts like: "you're not smart enough", "it's not possible to deeply learn about this many fields", "taking the time to learn about X will stop you from achieving a deeper understanding of Y".

If you read my last post[-1] you'll know that recently I've been a bit paralysed. I believe I'm finding more clarity now. I've realised that I love the challenge of learning new things. The thing I need to remember is this: while daunting and overwhelming, the idea that I get to learn about so many topics is incredibly exciting. I need to let my curiosity light the way again, to truly believe that wherever I follow it I can thrive.

Stuff I've been thinking about

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