Home Mama don’t let your baby grow up to be a Generalist

Mama don’t let your baby grow up to be a Generalist

It’s fun to be a Generalist, you get to explore a variety of different topics and it
often makes for good blogging. People don’t really know what to expect when they see a
new Read/Write Web item in their RSS Aggregator (although given my current experiment to
try and blog a “short and pithy” post every day, odds are that reader expectations have
fallen somewhat). And that uncertainty, that “what the heck is he on about this time?”
response that I’m sure you all have of me – or perhaps it’s “what the heck is he
on?” – you have to admit, it makes for interesting browsing …sometimes… when
I’m not crapping on about XHTML validation or some such boring thing.

Anyway… see I’ve digressed already. That just proves the point I was going to make
before I got distracted – that generalists have short attention spans. The other point I
want to make is that you can’t earn a decent living out of being a Generalist. And you
never really ‘fit in’ anywhere. Let me elucidate…

In my day job I’m a ‘Web Producer’. What does this entail? Mainly mind-numbingly
boring website maintenance. Why is this? You’re an intelligent, analytical, innovative
writer (I hear you saying, leaping to my defence as the loyal readers I know you are).
Author of the ‘Synchonicity
currently doing the rounds of the blogosphere. Inventer of the Microcontent Wiki. The
visionary who thought up the Fractal Blogosphere. Why is
this highly intelligent person stuck doing menial jobs like creating online ASP forms and
converting Visio diagrams to PDF 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week? Ok I’m exaggerating. But
it’s still a good question: why aren’t I satisfied in my career? And the sad answer is:
because I’m a Generalist.

But lest this turn into a self-pitying post, I should advise that some aspects of my
job are interesting. Like managing the creation of a new Intranet for a subsidiary
company in Australia, developing web strategies for one of the biggest private companies
in New Zealand, and experimenting with wikis. But the reality is, because I’m a jack of
all trades Generalist, too much of my time gets taken up doing menial Web things for
business people – just because I can.

There’s a name for this in rugby (New Zealand’s national sport). The Utility Back.
This is a player who can cover a number of positions in the backline – usually fullback,
winger, centre, second-five, even the premier position of first-five. Now the Utility
Back often gets picked in All Black test squads, because of his versatility. He can cover
a few positions, should one of the specialists get injured or loses form. And a Utility
Back is a perfect man to take on tour, for the same reason. So being a Utility Back is
good for your career, in the beginning that is. But the problem is, once your career as a
Utility Back is established – it becomes very very difficult to nail down a specialist
position in the backline. So the Utility Back invariably finishes their career sitting on
the bench, frustrated at not getting any play as a first-team regular. That’s precisely
what’s happening to my career. And I’ve got to change – I need to specialize so I can
wear the famous black jersey with the silver fern (oh wait a minute, that’s
another dream).

Being a Generalist is obvious too in my place in the “blogosphere”. I tackle a lot of
subjects: web design, web development, knowledge management, strategy, music, social
software…the list goes on. Most bloggers are sensible and stick to the 2-3 topics that
are dear to their heart. Topics that, in the Web Tech neighbourhood of the blogosphere at
least, match their real-world jobs. Designers always talk about Design. Social Software
researchers talk about social software. Developers talk about hating Microsoft. This is
all very sensible. Pick a subject and specialize in it.

And birds of a feather stick together. Designers groom each others nests (er, I mean
websites), developers peck away at their keyboards, researchers fly south to their
conferences. What do I do? I like to think I’m Jonathan
Livingston Seagull
, free to do my own thing, but maybe I’m just a lost sparrow
looking for breadcrumbs.

Well I resolve to limit my weblog topics to these:

– Strategy

– Knowledge Management

– Website Management (Planning & Implementation)

– Information Architecture

– Multimedia (to keep things interesting)

That’s about as narrow as I can make it. Significantly I’ll try not to focus on the
following things, even though they’re interests of mine and I’m competent at all of

– Web Design

– Programming

– Usability

– Topic Mapping (although one could argue it’s a part of info architecture)


It’s hard for a Natural Born Generalist to ignore topics, but the reality of today’s
supply/demand world is that one must focus on a niche. My niche is going to be
Writing, Analysis, Strategy, Knowledge Management (which I think covers all the topics
above that I said I’m sticking with). Focus, dude.

Incidentally when I was 11/12 years old, I was a star left winger in my rugby team
(Hutt Valley Marist). I scored the most amount of tries that year and was named Player of
the Year. I kicked the goals too. I was skilful and fast. And I really enjoyed my rugby at that time in my life. I loved being the star winger. Yes yes, I know I was only 11
– leave me with my childhood dreams though 🙂

To sum up: I hearby declare to you, don’t let your children grow up to be Generalists.
Save them before it’s too late. Teach them the value of specializing in niches. And if
you see me indulging in things that aren’t in my list of niche topics, write a scathing
comment on my weblog.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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