Friday, February 25, 2005

Specialization sometimes considered harmful

Bill Tozier has an interesting post about, well, a lot of things, but at least in part about the importance of sometimes trading off depth for breadth. At least, that's one of the things I got out of it. Read it for yourself and judge.

It made me think of a couple of related things: first, the sections about "problem solvers vrs problem creators" and the skills of problem creators in Michael Nielsen's post about the principles of effective research.

Second, the fact that the people I learned the most from during my time at Microsoft really were the "problem creators" and generalists -- they were the people who didn't necessarily know all the ins and outs of a specific technology, but knew something much more important: they knew enough about a particular topic, and other topics, to ask the right questions. These were the questions that exposed an angle that I'd never thought about before or a hole in my logic that would never have occurred to me [or only much later, at the most inopportune time].

Here's the catch, though: I think you need to acquire deep expertise in one [or more] areas in order to really be an effective generalist who can ask the insightful questions and sniff out the anomalies that will prove to be fruitful areas to probe into further. You need the skills, scars and skepticism you acquire in the course of learning all the ins and outs of something, whether that's becoming an expert in process X in species Y, or whether it's building a real-world software system. You need some specialization.

Personally, I've always been torn between being a specialist and a generalist. On the one hand, I enjoyed being The Man when it came to my part of the feature set of Microsoft Application Center 2000, knowing all the ins-and-outs of the code. On the other hand, I also liked getting to influence some of the higher-level decisions involved in building Microsoft's P2P SDK in my dev manager role.

Overall, though, I'm more of a generalist than a specialist. In keeping with that, I think I'd like to end up being a biotech VC, but I won't feel competent to do that until I've spent some time in industry developing expertise in one or more areas [
and nobody would hire me as a biotech VC until then anyway =)].


Blogger Son2 said...

The whole post was filled with the alternating bitterness and love that, at least, I feel for my various advisors and mentors. (I love this part especially: I remember walking upstairs one day from the biochemistry class, where we had been shown how “best” to whack a mouse’s neck against the lab bench to kill it “humanely,” and finding Norm (as was typical) leaning back in his office chair smoking a cigarette and reading a book. “Whatcha got?” “Plant chromosomes.”)

He also brings up (beginning with that quote, I think), a vague notion that I always try to bring up when I have discussions with people about the role of Science in our lives or about the scientific method or about Intelligent Design or something, which is that what non-scientists experience of Science is always this distilled version of what the researchers are really doing. That the science textbooks always teach generalities, and they're not always the right generalities. That was what resonated most for me in this post.

11:56 PM  

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