The myth of the generalist

When I started working at Google, I heard the word generalist over and over. “We only hire generalists,” I was told. Eight years later this mantra is pretty common. I hear it often both referring to the desired characteristics of new hires and also the aspirations of a team - “we want to be a team of generalists”.

At the time, I understood the word generalist to mean someone really good at a lot of things. In computer science, it might mean an engineer who is great at Javascript, CSS, HTML, Java, Rails, MapReduce, NodeJS - familiar with every technology up and down the stack. But these engineers are unicorns - they’re mythical.

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Even if I were to find one, how could an interview possibly screen for such depth of knowledge? And is a walking technical encyclopedia really the right fit for a startup?

Reading through Drucker’s Effective Executive, I came across this passage which I think is a much better definition:

The only meaningful definition of a “generalist” is a specialist who can relate his own small area to the universe of knowledge.
Peter Drucker

In other words, a generalist is someone has demonstrated learning one field, who has an open mind and who can articulate relationships between known domains and new ideas.

A team built of these types of people would be a great fit for a startup - smart, flexible thinkers who communicate well.

Startups bob and weave. They change architectures and products and markets and tactics. Startups need teams who can change the tires on the bus as it’s traveling at 60 mph; they need a team of MacGyvers, who combine a little bit of knowledge, a wad of gum(ption) from their pocket and some raw smarts to solve a problem. That’s my kind of generalist.

19 December 2012

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