jacks of all trades or masters of one?

There are three foci of web professionals: Technology, Design, and Business. Some folks focus on one exclusively (specialists), others integrate two or more foci into their work (generalists). “T-shaped” people have a broad set of general skills and knowledge with a deep skillset in one or two specific areas.
[session description]

Brian Talbot
M Jackson Wilkinson
12 March 2010


Web designers with markup chops. UX architects. Front-end engineer (CSS, Javascript).

“Honestly, I’m shocked that in 2010 I’m still coming across ‘web designers’ who can’t code their own designs. No excuse.” ~ Elliot Jay Stocks, Web designers who can’t code.

Analysis (self)

Do you like handling things from start to finish? Do you like working alone on projects? Can you learn and understand foreign concepts quickly? Do you need variety in your career? Are you good at knowing when you’re in over your head? Is job security a priority for you?

Analysis (team)

Is the team small? Is your team process more agile than waterfall? Do you need someone who can pitch in in various ways? Are you hiring a manager/exec?


Web designers that focus on the visual. User researchers. Database performance engineers.

Analysis (self)

Do you feel the need to be the best at one thing? Are you competitive and a perfectionist? Do you want to work on the new/hip/sexy projects?

Analysis (team)

Do you have a decent process in place? Is amazing execution your top priority? Can you keep team members busy all the time?

Point / Counterpoint

  • Specialists are the perfect tools for the specific job. Generalists take care of whatever is needed and get the job done.
  • Specialists keep current on trends and techniques. Generalists can ensure that execution matches intention (bridges gaps between communication points).
  • Specialists can be ignorant of external constraints and push boundaries past known limits. Generalists can see the big picture and the consequences of decisions.
  • Specialists can take advantage of specific market opportunities. Generalists can pivot / change easily throughout the lifespan of a career, even change careers.

3 replies on “jacks of all trades or masters of one?”

  1. I had a pretty negative reaction to this session, because it seemed to be slanted against specialists. I did accept the statement that a team of specialists with a waterfall process is less agile than a team of generalists with a highly agile process. It basically framed specialists as only bull-headed perfectionists that don’t step up and help out, and generalists as angelic staff who get the job done and are headed for upper management. I wish the session focused more of what a team of “T-shaped” people might be like.

  2. Of course, the same can be said of the idea that a generalist will never be as good as a specialist (in final output). That was examined as well. So perhaps this was more balanced than I first thought.

    Regardless, the intent was solid. The presenters truly wanted to examine the back and forth in a positive way. They did make a point during Q&A to mention that a team needs generalists and specialists, so that’s good even as much as I hate that kind of Pollyanna ending.

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