Here’s to the Generalists
In a world of specialization, it’s not easy being a generalist. I floundered to define myself for years when people would ask me at church or social events what I do for a living. There are just too many roles to the jobs I’ve held, not that I’ve held a lot of jobs, but just that the jobs I’ve held have involved wearing so many hats at the same time. In my last job, which I held for 10 years, I wore a lot of hats. I was a graphic designer for one project, a web developer for the next. I was tech support, office manager, desktop publisher, human resources, social media manager, search engine marketer, purchasing agent, accounts receivable, pre-press production, SEO specialist, project manager, content creator, blogger, hardware troubleshooter, network engineer, webmaster, oh and let’s not forget janitor, inventory manager, and personal shopper. Whew! If you don’t believe me, check out my resume.
Within the last few months I discovered a wonderful word that I’m now claiming as mine – I’m a generalist! And now that I’ve found out that I am one, I’ve discovered through Twitter that there are actually quite a few of us out there. I thought this blog would be a good place for us to gather and discuss things — you know, in general.
It’s like finding out you have some specific disease after years of wondering what in the world was wrong with you! All along you felt like a freak and you didn’t know how to explain to anyone what was happening to you, then suddenly there’s a medical term that defines the illness that’s been plaguing you. It could be a terrible disease, but there’s some real relief that comes with having a word to put on it. That’s how I feel about discovering I’m a generalist.
Generalists don’t like to specialize in any one task. I find myself getting bored when I delve too deeply into any one interest. I end up knowing a little about a lot of things, rather than knowing a lot about a few things. I find out what I need to know to get the job done, then I’m excited about learning some other new thing I can sink my teeth into. The downside of that is that it takes me longer to figure out what needs to be done when a specialist can handle the problem quickly. The upside is that when a generalist is on staff, managers don’t have to hire as many specialists, which is especially great when there’s not enough work or budget to pay the specialist. Specialists work for large companies, or they freelance their specialty to a collection of smaller companies. Generalists work for smaller companies (generally speaking).
Very rarely do you see ads for companies that are looking for basically someone who can do everything because today’s industry is compartmentalized. Projects are chopped up into small tasks and assigned to individuals who will complete their own little part. Project leads gather up the little parts and make sure they fit together, but that’s a specialty of its own. The project lead wouldn’t be able to perform any of the individual segments, but knowing how the segments fit together requires specialized training.
I can’t really pin myself down as a web developer. I don’t know if I can even define myself as a developer. If I look at job openings for web developers I find that employers want people who can perform very specific tasks, like php programming, C++, Ruby on Rails, Action Script, etc. I can’t call myself a web designer either because I don’t really create the designs — I can make Photoshop sing and enjoy working in it for half my day sometimes, yet I rely on graphic designers who have a much better eye for what looks good on a page or on the web than I do when it comes to creating a design from scratch. I can wireframe with the best of them, but I usually don’t code sites by hand. I’m not a programmer, but I’ve built hundreds of websites. I’ve moved from the early days of slicing websites into frames to learning how to use divs for tableless designs, to creating responsive WordPress websites, but I don’t feel that the title web developer exactly fits me.
I would love to know how my fellow generalists view their roles and how they’ve adapted in this specialized world we live in. Let me know your thoughts if you’re out there and reading this!