Several of the conversations I had at the recent RIPE70 meeting were focused on career advice (usually along the lines of “which technology should I focus on next”) and inevitably we ended up discussing the benefits of T-shaped skills versus I-shaped skills… and I couldn’t resist drawing a few graphs illustrating them.
A person with I-shaped skills is an expert in an ever-narrowing area (in the end you know everything about nothing). A person with dash-shaped skills is a generalist knowing a bit (or nothing) about everything.
Assuming comparable length of experience, motivation for learning, and exposure to new challenges I’d assume the area below the graphs being approximately equal for both types of skills. There’s only so much you can master in a given amount of time.
The “only” problem a generalist might have is that he’s under-skilled for the job at hand (too often solved by cut-and-pasting recipes found on Google aka Fake It Till You Make It). For example, he can easily tackle the green job in the following diagram, but not the dark-blue one. On the other hand, an expert might be over-specialized and thus unable to do a simple job outside of his area of expertise (don’t ask me how to add a user to Windows Active Directory).
Even worse, an expert is quickly over-qualified – he knows too much about a specific area, and no smart employer is willing to pay you for the knowledge they never need. As an expert you have a few options:
- Get a job in an environment that needs all your skills (example: work for a vendor);
- Get a job where you’ll get engaged in numerous small high-value projects (example: work for a professional services/system integration company or as an independent contractor);
- Find someone who’s willing to pay you way more than the real value you add;
Someone with T-shaped skills is obviously better suited for a wider variety of challenges and thus a better fit for most organizations – keep this in mind the next time you’re trying to figure out whether to specialize even more or tackle an adjacent technology.
Speaking of adjacent technologies, it might be possible to grow your total area of expertise much faster (due to cross-pollination of skills) if you carefully select the adjacent technologies – for example, storage networking isn’t much different from Ethernet (or X.25 ;) and virtual switches often tend to be lobotomized VLAN-capable layer-2 switches (or really simple IP routers).
Speaking of reskilling…
At least once a month I get an email along the lines of “your webinars really helped me get this new job” – if you need solid fundamentals in new technologies, from virtual networking to cloud infrastructure or SDN, check them out.