Generalist is an ugly word in the agency world. The worst insult is to be called a jack of all trades and a master of none, and getting that label can be career-ending. Whilst only a superficial understanding of many areas can be detrimental, being a specialist and understanding how others work can only be a good thing. So why is generalism seen as so undesirable? Is only being the best you can at one thing always in your best interest? How can you embrace elements of generalism to be a better employee, improve your promotion prospects and future-proof your career?
For the agency, it's easier to pigeonhole individuals, hiring based on education and previous experience to feed the assembly line production of digital products. That's HR and managers thinking in terms of resources and not people. The best teams are made up of individuals with deep knowledge in their field and a more holistic understanding of how the agencies work.
You can become an invaluable asset to your team
by understanding roles outside your own.
For example, if you're a designer, take time to understand what developers do by discussing projects with them and researching the tools they use and how they approach common problems. Or, as a developer, you can develop an understanding of crafting compelling designs by talking to designers and exploring good user interaction patterns.
These conversations benefit the team in terms of developing more well-rounded solutions and give individuals greater insight into their roles. By understanding how what you do fits into the bigger picture, you can create better strategies for your projects and use this to identify areas where you need to improve.
It's about being a T-shaped employee.
This means having a deep knowledge of your area but also an understanding of the roles of others. Specializing in one field doesn't mean you need to ignore or exclude everything else; it just means learning enough to add value when required. Be open to new ideas and appreciate where they come from.
This is especially important when working with a CMS like Umbraco. We touch many areas and people, and understanding the bigger picture is critical. It’s essential to know how a website fits into the overall customer experience, how changes to the content affect the design, what makes a good content authoring experience, what content needs to be created or amended and how this connects with other channels such as mobile apps, emails, etc.
Empathy and understanding are the keys to your accelerating career and personal development. If you want to become a team leader, a manager or a business owner, you must know how to collaborate, work with and motivate the people around you. A better understanding of how everyone works, their tasks, and their strengths help create an environment where success is more straightforward. It also has the added benefit of making you stand out from the crowd.
Meetups, podcasts, online talks.
Looking outside your company bubble can bring both a new perspective and an increased depth of knowledge. Attending meetups and conferences and listening to podcasts are excellent ways to learn from experts in their fields. I like going to Meetups specialising in something I know little to nothing about, I may not understand all that is said, but it helps me to get it a little more and to empathise with others. It's great to see how others approach problems and to appreciate the tips and tricks they use to solve them.
With today's tools, it's never been easier.
As digital has matured and the tooling has become more sophisticated and specialised, anyone can get involved. It’s increasingly easy to learn new skills and tools and find ways to improve yourself and contribute more. Here are a few examples.
In the past, designing for the web required a deep understanding of Photoshop and how to best use it for that medium. Figma has been created specifically for the web; it’s easy to learn the basics and get started, much of the complexity has been simplified, and everything is broken down into easy-to-understand tutorials. Collaboration is built-in, so teams can work together in real-time to create prototypes and solutions, and everyone can get involved. This is the democratisation of the design process.
SEO has always been seen as a black art with a steep learning curve and complexity. But now, tools like Moz Pro or SEMrush make it easier than ever to conduct research and optimise websites for search engine rankings. You are guided through a well-understood process, with content that explains the basics so that you can at least hold a conversation with a specialist.
The impact of AI on specialists
When every new technology is developed, there's always the fear that it will make specialist roles redundant. But this is rarely the case; it's usually used to adapt and improve current working practices, improving efficiencies and removing boring or repetitive tasks. The same is true with AI. According to the experts (and they are always right ?!!?!), we are a long way from `general purpose` AI, one where we can tell a computer "create an online store for a furniture company" and it will create one for us.
We now have tools that work a little, like very knowledgeable assistants that can help us with our tasks. We ask the assistant to complete a job and then edit and implement the output into a larger piece of work. We are still required to know what will satisfy the requirements and the best way to make it work; that is why we will still need people with specialist experience.
But... having these tools available makes it easier for specialists to manage other AI tools in different specialisms. For example, I wrote this article using Jasper.AI (copywriting) and Grammarly (writing); they helped me craft a better article that would have taken much longer to produce without their help.
AI makes life more efficient and productive; it’s not about taking away jobs but helping us become better at our jobs. As with any new technology, AI has its pitfalls and limitations, but if used correctly, it can help us become more productive and efficient within our specialisms and extend the range of tasks we can complete outside of our job roles without getting others involved. Having at least a basic generalist understanding of many areas will help immensely in managing multiple AI assistants.
Generalism should not be something we shy away from but rather seen as a tool that can help equip individuals with the knowledge they need to work as versatile specialists in their fields.
Be brave, be curious, and be open-minded – these qualities will help you be a better employee, guide you in your career, help you become a more rounded individual, and help you grow as a person.
So next time you work with another specialist, don't just leave them to it; take some time to talk to them and understand what they do; it's all too easy to just live in your own world, and hiding away might not always be the best approach, for you or your team.