This is a question I get asked a lot, more than I expect—by a large multiplier. I have been asked by students in college, or those just about to graduate, or even folks in their 20’s that are looking for guidance on their next job opportunities and selection process. We have all seen the very successful deep thinker or deep doer in a particular area. It could be cloud computing, network or database administration, marketing or mechanical engineering. There is a certain successful aura in a person who is a deep practitioner in a specific area. They love their work, they are passionate about it and tend to spend a lot of their work and personal time invested in that area. They seem very happy in what they do “Comfortable in their specialty” is the way we tend to categorize them.
Then you have the generalist. More than likely they can speak to a broad array of topics and they really enjoy context switching between knowledge domains (Internet, cloud, virtual reality, space technology) and corporate functions. Then for marketing plans one minute, technical architecture and P&L models the next.
Is there a right answer?
More than likely there is no right answer that is applicable for everyone. Some people’s dispositions will push them towards going deep or going broad. Also I believe that over time in one’s life, it is human nature to broaden out as you get exposed to more people and situations. Getting back to the advice, I have found that the best approach to take in the high tech area.
Probably for many others is to make sure that you have both a depth and breadth to your experience. While this may not be surprising and may be fairly predictable if you know me, the real challenge for people’s careers is “How do I do both?”
Best of All Worlds!
My previous blog on earlier careers shows how you should attack deep problems in your primary career area. With that set of experience you learn both the domain knowledge and expertise. You learn how to apply the knowledge to new problems as well as how to work across thorny relationships. It is not just the knowledge, but the structured learning on how to solve problems in areas where you are not an expert. The key is to develop and hone your processes and procedures for identifying, approaching, solving and communicating your results. These processes and procedures are critical as you move forward in your career and are instrumental in how you interact as your begin to broaden out your in your field. Technical and engineering training produce logical and analytical people, but you need more of your left brain to the develop the skills to go broad. The move from deep to broad should be something you do with full knowledge and planning; this is not something you just let happen to you. One advantage to broadening out later in your career is that it opens up other areas and opportunities to work in, something you will appreciate later in your working life.
Go deep early in your 20’s and early 30’s and broaden out in your late 30’s. This does not mean that you have to work only where your broad skills are used in the middle and later careers, it just means you have those skills at your disposal. The last point I want to make is that as you are broadening out your base, it is still important to maintain a depth in that original area. Staying abreast of the richness of new developments is important. All too often I see people who have broadened out and did not maintain their depth. The emperor has few clothes at that point.