Posted on

Specialization considered harmful

It is sometimes recommended that software engineers should learn “depth-first”, and seek to specialize early in their careers. I think his advice is misguided. In my opinion, having a wide range of knowledge is in many cases more important than being extremely good at a very specialized task. I will use this article to make the case for avoiding specialization as a software engineer.

A set of tools
Photo by Kenny Eliason

It’s not just about practice hours

A common misconception when learning a new skill is that, since it might take 10,000 hours to master it, the best thing to do is to start practicing as early as possible and with as much focus as possible. Reality is however not as simple.

It may be true that just putting in a lot of focused practice hours will lead to amazing results in problems that are very constrained in scope (like chess). However, for subjects that have a very broad, and frequently evolving set of problems, experience working on very diverse subjects will often perform better than intense specialization.

One of the reasons behind that is that many problems that are at first sight unrelated will have similar patterns. Being exposed to a wide variety of problems allows you to see a lot of potential patterns between problems.

This is why history has many records of people achieving breakthroughs in many fields. For example, Benoit Mandelbrot first noticed the concept of fractal by studying probability distributions in financial markets, he managed to find an application of the concept to many patterns that appear in nature, such as coastlines, clouds, and blood vessels.

Tech changes, fast

Many people underestimate how fast the world of software engineering can change. Some extremely popular concepts like “DevOps” were pretty much not a thing 10 years ago. 20 years ago, I doubt anyone would have known what differentiated a “frontend developer” from a “backend developer”. Even if you zoom on very specific technologies, things are changing every year: React code written in 2023 doesn’t have much in common with React code written in 2015.

A retro-looking computer
Photo by Lorenzo Herrera

Being a generalist, allows you to adapt much faster to change, it can be seen as a way of “learning to learn”. Once you have been exposed to many problems and solutions, picking up new tools and adapting to changes in the field becomes easier and easier.

There’s more to software engineering than code

Most importantly, learning the ins and out of a programming language and tech stack is not what brings value. Software engineering is the art of using computers to solve problems. Those problems are generally not about computers, but involve businesses and people. In my experience, this is a point that is easy to miss when over-focusing on the depth of a specific technology.

This is also where a lot of people who make a career change and transition late into the tech industry have an edge. They can compensate for their late start by being more aware of the reality of business and the needs of organizations.