Culture

26 April, 2022

The importance of having Generalists and T-Shaped individuals in the workplace

In the software industry, you often hear about the term “Generalists” and “T-shaped”. But what exactly are they or the difference between them?

Priscila Correia

Marketing Manager

The importance of having Generalists and T-Shaped individuals in the workplace - Coletiv Blog

Have you ever considered the difference between individuals in terms of knowledge and skills?

In the software industry, you often hear about the term “Generalists” and “T-shaped”. But what exactly are they or the difference between them?

In this article, we’ll get through them, and, most precisely, talk about why they are important assets in the workplace. Having Coletiv as an example.🤓

But, first things first, let’s get into the definitions. 👇

I-shaped → Individuals that developed great knowledge and expertise into one single discipline but have little knowledge outside that discipline. Aka “Specialists”.

Generalists → Individuals with knowledge in several disciplines who are capable of many things but are not experts in any.

T-shaped → Individuals who have a reasonable debt of knowledge in several disciplines but are experts in one of them.

Definition of Generalists and T-Shaped individuals

But why use bars to describe this? It’s simple actually.

The vertical bar ❙ is related to the deep knowledge in a single discipline. The horizontal bar ━ is related to a set of skills in disciplines that are not related to the primary one.

This means niche professionals like architects, doctors, and scientists will have very often an I-shaped bar, as they specialize in one discipline.

On the other hand, a digital marketer or sales manager can easily fall under the T-shaped bar, as they need to develop skills in other disciplines but have expertise in only one.

Another example is a software engineer that does design, PM, backend, and frontend development, it can fall under the Generalist horizontal bar, as it can tackle multiple disciplines but not specialize in one particular.

Now that we got that out of the equation, the ideal workplace should be a combination of these different types of professionals. Specialists, Generalists, and T-shaped. 🙌

The way to deal with a certain challenge will differ between all these individuals so it’s particularly important to embrace that diversity in the workplace and product development process.

Product development scope at Coletiv

Our team at Coletiv is very diverse in terms of skills. We even have a matrix of competencies in Notion, to keep track of them all.

It helps when a new project comes up. 😎

Coletiv Team matrix of competencies

Based on our matrix in Notion, this is what our team looks like:

👉 Raquel & Diogo are I-shaped. They specialize and have deep knowledge in one primary discipline which is design.

👉 André, Tiago and Daniel are generalists. They developed good knowledge in multiple disciplines and do not focus on one in particular. Some include Web, Elixir, iOS, and Project Management.

👉 Marinho, Pedro, Rui, and António are T-shaped because they demonstrate skills in other disciplines but only specialize either in Web, Elixir, or Flutter.

We believe that building a T-shaped approach can help boost efficiency in a project since these members can help with their diverse skill set when necessary but retain expert knowledge in their main area to keep the quality high.

At the same time, generalists give us confidence in a project when our team gets asked a lot of things and we need broad knowledge.

Fun fact, our generalists are usually in leadership positions in a project because, since they have all-around knowledge, they can easily guide the team and help when necessary. They also help make informed decisions. When a new feature or product needs to be developed, generalists can, more easily, predict the challenges ahead.

Our product designers, aka our specialists, have a super important role in our projects and are usually only focused on their discipline. 🙌

Building a diverse team

Lately, in a project, we avoid having only one team member per stack/technology because the more input we can have on a solution, the quicker it is to solve problems. Also, our team works better that way as we don’t feel lonely.

With that said, having mostly generalists and T-shaped members in our team promotes discussion within projects where we have different disciplines, be it for the backend or frontend.

For us, it’s also important to have team members that can adapt to industry and project demands. That’s why having a broad skill set and knowledge is valuable.

Altogether, we build a balanced and flexible team that can adjust to the different challenges that a project requires.

But this generalist/t-shaped approach does not work for bigger projects. Sometimes you need to incorporate more specialists into the team. For example in areas like SEO, Crypto, Research, etc.

It’s all about your team's abilities. In our development team, for example, we don't force a technology just because we're familiar with it. When a technology we master isn't right for a product, either we adapt or we help our clients find the right people that can help them.

This is the only way to ensure we always deliver with high quality.

Investing time in other skills

At Coletiv we promote getting out of the comfort zone and investing some time to explore new things.

In a previous article, we shared a little bit about our culture of DRIs (directly responsible individuals) and how we have different members leading areas of Coletiv, outside of their technical expertise. For example, team building, HR, internal activities, etc. This forces us to get outside our comfort zone and develop skills outside our main discipline.

Expertise gained during Coletiv investment time

Another initiative that we have is the “Investment time” that allows us to explore new areas.

In my case, for example, I invested some time learning UI/UX design and created a small prototype of a Pokemon application. And most recently, learned to develop websites in Webflow.

The possibilities are endless.


Last thoughts ✍️

Our vision is to have a multi-faceted diverse team that feels comfortable trying out new things, exploring technologies, tools, and other skills that will make Coletiv evolve and improve as a whole.

Then, we take this knowledge out to the world through our culture, clients, partners, and products. 🧡


Resources 📄

Generalists

T-Shaped

Product Development

Team Management

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