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Hire generalists to help your specialists shine!

Imagine you are developing a highly-specialized embedded software product. Like a radio tower for the GSM/UMTS network, or a high-frequency trading back-end for a large New York trading firm. Why would you want to have generalists in that team? After all, these are niche-niche-niche products. Maybe a few thousand people work on these projects in the world. No need, right? Wrong! Here's why.

Forget common-sense

The comment above is designed to sound counter-intuitive. The reason for that is that most of this post is counter-intuitive. I'll argue that one of the basic premises behind software project management are purely and simply wrong. This one specifically, is ultra-wrong: specialists in a software project (even a niche one) should be the majority of the team. The "favor specialists" heuristic says things like: "don't hire a Ruby programmer to a Java project", "hire only people who've done financial systems to that high-frequency trading platform", etc. You get the picture.

What is the reason for this "favor specialists" heuristic? Why did it arise? The most obvious reason is that we want to hire people that "know what they are doing", and in our functional definition of software projects that means: "people who have done that one thing before". And who could argue with that? Right?

What if we looked at projects like systems, complex systems that incorporate technical and social aspects that are very hard to control or manage? In this case we would be compelled to question the "favor specialists" heuristics, because we would look at a project as much more than a technical endeavor. We would look at projects as being social and technical endeavors.

Social is complex

Social systems have many more dynamics in place than "what is the best technical solution? How do we select from competing technical solutions? What skills should we hire for?"
Social systems change rapidly (whether you like it or not), and they require a different set of assumptions about what is the best project team composition and organization. For example - the point of this post - it requires us to question the ratio of generalists to specialists.
In the last post I talked about Emergence. I explained that system behavior is affected by many unpredictable dynamics and that simple rules favor adaptable behavior in projects. I also said that a long list of complicated rules will remove adaptability from the project team. The heuristic I described in that post is: "complex rules emerge stupid behavior."

Emergence is favored by and favors generalists

I believe all projects are social complex systems. Yes, even two people projects (those, probably even more than larger projects. Think of the rule set on a 2 people project!). These social complex systems perform better when there are only a few and simple rules. They benefit from constant change (see here how to do that so that it does not kill you). Social complex systems are environments where generalists excel! Here's why:

  • generalists are more likely to think laterally (similar problems in other domains), and therefore come up with innovative solutions that provide business advantages;
  • generalists are more likely to establish communication links to other teams and organizations (because they are connected to more interest groups - which is what makes them generalists), and therefore improve the overall communication in the project team;
  • and there are many more, let me know which you have found in your experience by leaving a comment.

Improve performance by adding generalists to your project

I propose that we start designing our projects based on a different heuristic: "favor generalists". This means that we will try to seed all teams with generalists, people who know their trade but are not invested in only one particular technical solution or process.

For Developers this means that all developers should be encouraged to learn several programming languages, work in different problems during their employment, and that we don't hire people just because they've solved the same problem in the past.

For Testers this means that we hire people that can do manual and automated testing (maybe more on than the other, but both), that know different technologies, that understand social aspects (users) and technical aspects of software development (e.g. math).

For Product Managers this means that we hire people that have worked in other industries, other types of products or even in non-software only products.

If you believe, like I do, that software projects are social complex systems, then you must not favor specialists. Hire and groom specialists but seed all teams with generalists, sit back and enjoy the higher performance.

Picture credit: John Hammink, follow him on twitter.

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