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Avoid the Jack of all Trades trap

April 12, 2009


Key ingredients to success and career growth, at least the two on my mind right now, are focus and determination.  Why are these things important?  I’ll tell you why, because when most people are asked how to be successful, focus and determination will probably slip off their tongue, however if you were to actually observe them at work and in their personal life, you would most likely see a lack of one or both of these.

Lets start with determination as it seems more obvious.  Determination isn’t really something in and of itself, it’s more of a measurement of what lengths you are willing to go to in order to achieve your goals.  So being very determined to accomplish something really just means you are willing to do certain things to get there, which usually will consist of things like:

  • Practicing
  • Researching
  • Learning
  • Looking for teaching/coaching
  • Anything else that makes sense.

Many people may say they are determined to accomplish something, but what they really mean is they really wish they could just wake up tomorrow and be at their destination.  That’s an exaggeration for most people, but for many it’s somewhere between that and what’s actually required to reach their goals.

Focus on the other hand is something that most people probably don’t think about enough.  Determination by itself is not good enough.  The problem is that when your goals are to become an expert at anything, no matter how determined you are you won’t be able to accomplish that goal without focusing on it.  You’ll need to cut out distractions, and stop trying to focus on improving skills that are not related to the skill you wish to be an expert at.  There is an old saying you’ve probably heard before “Jack of all trades, master of none”.  It’s relevant in all industries, and IT trades are definitely no exception.  I’d say it may be worse in IT but that wouldn’t really be an informed opinion so i won’t make any bets on it.

So, if you take my word for it, lack of focus will result in a jack of all trades.  To be more specific, a lack of refocusing will result in a jack of all trades.  The reason for that is because at the beginning of your career you won’t know what you want to focus on besides becoming a better developer, business analyst, sys admin etc.  Sticking to the development track because it’s what I’m most familiar with, you’ll initially need to focus on how programming works, basic skills related to the industry, and probably try to get a basic level of knowledge on as many things as possible.

So now you’re done school and ready for your first job.  You start out by soaking up as much information as possible, learning everything you can.  You learn about things like object oriented design, service oriented architecture, domain driven design, database design and performance tuning etc.

Skip forward 3 or 4 years, you’re quite competent in every aspect of your job, you’re a go to guy for your team, you can become competent at a new skill in short order at the drop of a dime.  You have basically reached the epitome of most peoples career – broad competence with the ability to pick up new basic skills quickly.

Now you’re faced with the decision everybody in the industry runs up against, and most people don’t even realize it.  Do I want to keep getting better, and if so, how?  The answer to the first question is a factor of determination.  How much are you willing to do in order to keep getting better?  The answer to the second question is focus.  Up until now in your career you’ve enjoyed getting better at everything, making constant improvement in everything.  Bad news – that’s not going to last forever.  You’re going to have to pick a skill, or subset of skills and focus on improving those skills.  The side effect of this is that you’re going to have to “defocus” on all skills not related to the ones you’ve chosen to focus on.  It’s a large hurdle for most people to jump because it’s easy to understand but hard to accept and work with.

This will be a turning point in your career.  You’ll either accept the hurdle and jump over it, taking a turn down the road to becoming highly skilled in narrowly focused areas, or else you can understand the hurdle but not choose to jump it (lack of determination) and decide to take the easy path which unfortunately leads to the dead end of being average, the jack of all trades trap.

So to sum up the thought, you’re going to continue to refocus your skills throughout your career.  Every so often you will zoom in on a new area that you’ll specialize in.  Once you have reached a certain level in those skills you’ll zoom in your focus again on yet another area to become more specialized in.  Only you can decide when you’ve focused enough.  The less focused you are the more skills you’ll be able to maintain a specific skill level at, at the expense of increasing that skill level.  At some point the only way to increase skill in some area you’re interested in will be to defocus on another skill and allow your ability in that area to lapse.

Focus and determination.  How determined are you to reach your goals?  Determined enough to allow your skills in something you used to be good at to lapse?  Willing to not be the go to guy for a laundry list of skills?  How many are you willing to drop, how much are you willing to work at the ones you’re going to focus on?  Keep asking yourself this question, it will play a key role in your career development.

By: Chris Dagenais

  1. April 15, 2009 at 12:39 PM

    First, let me say that I agree with the above.

    But I think there’s an interesting point in that some degree of generalization is definitely useful. I’ve heard the phrase “generalizing specialist” used to describe someone who has a lot of general skills (say, you can play the role of Team Lead, or Developer), but who has a specialty in one area.

    Similar to the Jack of All Trades trap, I think there is a specialization trap. For example, if you’re a developer who has no knowledge of the business that your company is in you’re at a serious disadvantage over someone who does.

    Optimally, I think we should all strive to strike a balance between becoming extremely skilled in one area at the cost of others, and becoming skilled in every area at the cost of being an expert in one. Everyone should have a specialty, but everyone should also know enough to play another role; or at least know enough to understand the other role’s point of view.

  2. April 15, 2009 at 1:12 PM

    Completely agree Kevin. You continue to focus during your career until it doesn’t make sense to focus in any further, and as you stated that balance between focused expertise and general level skill will be different for every person, but a critical balance to find.

  3. Brett McClelland
    April 16, 2009 at 3:48 PM

    It is an interesting concept, and I agree totally. Not only is the balance critical to find, and different for every person, but it is noteworthy that even once a developer has found that balance, there is nothing guaranteeing that the balance achieved will be appropriate for that person forever; even a single developer’s balance in this respect can remain fluid, further adding to the complexity of the concept.

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