Marketing Isn't the Only Reason to Specialize

Thursday, February 15, 2024

A while back, I encountered a post by a software consultant who considers himself a generalist, but who maintains that he has had to market himself as a specialist. It reads in part:

It might look like that from the outside, but once you look under the covers you can see I'm secretly still a generalist.

First of all, each Rust project I've taken required use of my broad skillset and hacker mindset. I've had to jump into completely new problem domains and codebases, where the only common denominator was that the projects were implemented in Rust.
A bit later, he correctly identifies part of the problem his apparent specialization solves:
Considering all this, my current theory is that focusing on your experience with a specific technology, and on your involvement in a particular community, makes it easier to establish trust with people who don't know you well. And, as trust grows, there's more and more room for the undercover generalist to come to the light of day! [bold added]
Yes. That is true. You have to start somewhere to market yourself to the complete strangers you wish to turn into customers, and the best way is to find an area they and you know lots about.

There are plenty of people who claim to be generalists and aren't really, after all. Who wants to learn that the hard way?

A speciality is a road to the road to where you want to be. (Image by Paul Fiedler, via Unsplash, license.)
At the risk of putting words into someone else's mouth, I don't think ease of marketing is the whole story.

I regard myself as a generalist writer, and have thought about this problem. It would be easier to get my foot into doors were I to specialize in a topic, but that alone is not (and should not) be motivation enough to specialize. For one thing, what if your big break comes in an area that puts you to sleep? (Or, more realistically, since big breaks are rare: Do you think you can really write that well about something that puts you to sleep?)

It can't be just any topic, and anyone like me will bristle at the whole idea of having to pigeonhole himself simply because the right customer hasn't come along yet.

Another factor I have noticed is not so directly tied to the need to find customers, and that's time. In my own writing, I have noticed this: I sometimes come up with good-sounding ideas for columns, start researching the topic, and then discover that it will take too long for me to get to the point I actually know what I'm talking about: The time for that idea will be gone by then.

That time may return, but in the meantime, I'm not working on something that might get me somewhere -- which is another way time gets eaten for a generalist.

The stealth generalist Rust programmer shows a way out in more ways than one: His existing knowledge of Rust saves him time in the process of solving problems and allows him to get experience doing so, and the experience of thinking about a wide variety of problems (in Rust, at least at first) makes him quicker-enough at doing this later on that doing so in other languages isn't as slow for him as it might be for an inexperienced generalist.

Specialization isn't just a way to market. It's part of becoming a generalist, which has to start with one or more specific areas of expertise.

-- CAV

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