Why We Need Generalists in Tech

I am not a programmer. While I do have a distant background in visual design, I can’t do anything particularly impressive with Creative Suite; nor can I build more than the most basic html web page. I don’t have an MBA, or an accounting degree, or a particular knack for sales. What I do have: smarts, intuition, and experience.

For a generalist like myself, it can be difficult to explain to people what I do exactly. As Content Strategist, I was part of the Marketing team at my last job, but my role is really much broader than what I sometimes tell people: “I run the blogs.” It sounds demeaning to put it that way, but it’s much simpler than trying to explain to random old friends of the family why a role like mine is so critical in a tech startup (or any company, but I speak to what I know).

The received wisdom is that you should find a skill — something you love to do — and get really good at that one thing (or a few things as the case may be). I have never found that thing. Arguably, I’m good with words. I’m a good writer, a decent editor, and I can usually hone in on the most efficient way to express an idea. But I’m too interested in technology and building the future to go off and “be a writer.” I’m also too fond of a reasonable level of income. The romantic notion of taking a sabbatical to go write the Great American Novel, or finish my memoir is appealing… but not very realistic, and, honestly, probably not all that desirable.

People like me — with humanities degrees and collections of mismatched hats from 24 year of working for (mostly) small, creative companies — are critical in environments where people are silo-ed according to skill set. Engineers have their heads buried in code. Designers think about user experience mostly in terms of which buttons to put where and with how many pixels of space in between. Marketers think about who will buy this thing and how to reach those people. Somebody has to step back far enough to see how it all connects. Sometimes that person is the CEO, sometimes the product manager. In my history, it has often been me.

I am good at communication. Yes, sure, I have “strong written and verbal communication skills,” but beyond that, I am good at understanding and expressing somewhat complex ideas. And I can do so without stepping on anyone’s toes. I’ve always been a good diplomat. Among my nicknames from friends are “Switzerland” and “Teflon.” I seem to be able to get along and communicate with pretty much anyone. Which is a surprisingly big deal. I don’t get caught up in us vs. them or workers vs. management, because I can see both sides and communicate openly.

When you go to get a humanities degree you hear a lot about the importance of critical thinking. It’s the main selling point, in terms of how this degree can help you to be employable. Because — let’s face it — people with humanities degrees aren’t getting seven digit offers from the Googles of the world. They are, however, Steve Jobs. Or they can be, given the drive and conditions. And it’s true, I am better at critical thinking thanks to my humanities degree. I thought I was a pretty good thinker before, but now I think beyond the surface questions more readily.

Like many mid-career professionals, I plan to keep learning and growing into new roles. That may mean formal education or taking on more challenges at work. It may mean spending more time on personal projects. I may never have an entirely clear-cut role, but I prefer it that way. Sticking to a single pursuit can hinder growth in other areas. I may choose to specialize, if I find a role that really fits, but I think it’s more likely that I’ll keep collecting hats.


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