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Building The Future of Freelance Software / slashdev.io
Exploring the Pros and Cons of Broad and Narrow Skillsets in Software Engineering/
Every software engineer has a unique skill set that is composed of various skills they have learned. This skill set can be considered “deep and narrow” if they have only mastered one to two skills, and “broad and shallow” if they can perform multiple tasks without being an expert in any field. However, most programmers fall somewhere in between these two spectrums with a few strong skills, some average ones, and several gaps.
Types of Software Engineer Skills and Skillsets
Deep and Narrow Skillset
Having a deep skillset means you are an expert in at least one field. For example, if you know everything about relational database theory, the pros, and cons of different database systems, how to optimize queries, and when and how to denormalize a database, then you are considered an expert in SQL. Clients who require this particular skill set will want to hire you immediately because you will deliver value as no one else could.
However, if the project expands or changes significantly, you might need to be replaced or supplemented by programmers with the skills you lack. Moreover, your narrow expertise might bias you against unfamiliar options, preventing you from suggesting architectural changes that could benefit the client.
Broad and Shallow Skillset
On the other hand, if you are a generalist who is not a domain expert, you may need some time to ramp up on new projects before reaching peak productivity. For instance, you may need to do a Python project, but you have never used that language before. However, your experience with other programming languages will make the transition much easier, and you can leverage this broad perspective on technology to generate ideas that others might miss.
While you may not initially write Pythonic code, your well-factored modules will be easy to improve later. Additionally, when the project changes, you will be an asset to your team instead of a liability.
Skillsets in the Real World
In real-world terms, narrow skillsets look like tall mountains, while broad skillsets are like plateaus. Most skill sets tend to have a few mountains, a hill here and there, and a lot of plains.
For instance, a random programmer may be great at SQL and Python, okay at web programming and algorithms, and apprehensive about most other things, like core dumps, OAuth servers, or native apps. In this case, the programmer should continue to utilize their areas of expertise while also seeking out and filling knowledge gaps. This approach is likely to serve them best over time.
Why Programmers Need to Diversify Their Skillsets
In the fast-paced world of software engineering, it’s easy to get bogged down in a narrow set of skills. Many programmers specialize in one or two areas, which can be great for finding work in the short term. However, as technology rapidly evolves and project requirements change, overspecialization can be risky. Top employers value diverse skill sets and increasingly seek out well-rounded engineers. In this article, we’ll explore why programmers need to diversify their skill sets and how to go about doing so.
The Risks of Overspecialization
Many projects require a diverse set of skills, combined in unpredictable ways. Broadly skilled engineers are more likely to be able to contribute usefully to these projects. Conversely, an expert’s skill set may not match most employers’ precise requirements. While this may not be an issue in the short term, overspecialization can be risky. It’s difficult to predict the future, and the demand for certain skills can change rapidly. Employers also highly value diverse skills. Top companies like Facebook and Google encourage internal transfers and seek out well-rounded engineers.
How to Diversify and Improve Technical Skills
To diversify their skill sets, programmers can trade money or time for skills. Accepting a lower rate while transitioning to an unfamiliar field can be a good option. Contributing to open-source projects can also be a great way to learn new skills, get advice, and give back to the community. Doing personal projects for joy and inspiration can also help diversify skills.
Why Breadth is Good for Employers
While deep skills are required in certain scenarios, many projects don’t require esoteric knowledge or catastrophic outcomes. Employers should consider hiring well-rounded engineers who possess both technical and soft skills like communication and resilience. The importance of broad skill sets should be communicated to employers who may be too focused on “years of experience” with various fields and skills.
Striking the Right Balance
Demanding a perfect skillset match makes it harder to match supply with demand. Domain expertise will always matter and be handsomely rewarded. However, we should keep in mind that broad skills also matter more than is apparent.
In conclusion, while both deep and narrow skillsets and broad and shallow skillsets have their advantages, getting closer to the broad end of the spectrum would benefit most programmers. Many projects require a combination of unrelated skills in unpredictable ways, making it important for software engineers to diversify their skill sets. Overspecialization is risky, and top employers highly value diverse skills. Developers can diversify their skills by trading money or time for new skills, such as contributing to open-source projects or taking on personal projects. Employers should also consider well-rounded engineers for projects that do not require deep skills in specific areas. In the end, striking the right balance between deep expertise and broad knowledge is crucial for the success of both developers and projects.