Depth vs Breadth

At my last few employers I used to blog regularly and encourage other executives to blog. I will be reproducing slightly modified versions of some of those blog posts here. This one, on the subject of when and how to expand skills and knowledge, was first published in early 2019.

Depth vs Breadth?

In this article I would like to share some thoughts about professional development, especially whether and when one should focus on increasing one’s depth of knowledge or breadth of knowledge.

Disclaimer: This is not anyone’s official policy. It’s a set of personal opinions that have guided me in my career, and that I’ve given as advice to people I’ve mentored from time to time. Consider it just that: advice from a mentor, for your consideration. Take it or leave it as you wish.

Career advice

I’ve written that I think mentoring others is an important responsibility of senior managers; and, indeed, of everyone. In a mentoring role, I often end up discussing career paths and personal development plans with people – often technical people, but not always.

One common topic is the kind of training or continuing education to take, or the kind of on-the-job learning to seek in job assignments. Should I work to deepen (or update) my skills in a given specialty, or put effort into learning a new one?

First, you should certainly do one or both of those things. The worst choice would be to do neither – to just stagnate, neither getting better at what you do nor learning something new. Don’t do that.

We need skilled experts, and whatever your field of expertise, you need to remain up to date. And when you are at the beginning of a career, you probably need to get better at your field before you start worrying about learning something new.

Nevertheless, I still feel that people tend to under-value breadth. We need specialists. But we don’t need everyone to be one.

To an Olympic Silver athlete, getting to Gold probably seems like the most important thing in life. I, on the other hand, would hire anyone who made the Olympic team to coach me in that sport in a heartbeat. They’re already so much better than me that I don’t need to hire a medalist, little less the Gold – and probably can’t afford them. In fact they’re probably too good to coach me – they may be out of touch with how bad someone can be at something, or they may find it frustrating to lower themselves to my level.

Outside elite sports, if you’re among the best in the world at doing something, for many purposes that’s probably good enough. With your remaining learning time, moving higher among the best is probably not worthwhile.

On the other hand, one problem we face all the time is change: something will happen that means the thing we’re good at is suddenly less relevant, and something else is suddenly important. For example, I’m an expert in a number of computer programming languages that haven’t been used for decades. Becoming even more expert in those would be a waste of time and energy.

(This reminds me of a time I was recruiting at a university campus for software development jobs.  I asked an applicant, “which programming languages are you familiar with?” and they responded, rather indignantly, “both of them!”  I didn’t ask what they thought the two programming languages in the world were, and we didn’t go much farther.)

Suppose you’re an expert in some field, and you can routinely score 97% on a skills evaluation. Further suppose that you have a training budget and some time to take training. Should you use that training budget and time to study more in your field, to move from scoring 97% to 98%? Or should you use that training time to learn something entirely new?

I think generally the latter. Be 97% in something and 70% (and rising) in another thing. That’s much more valuable (to society, to your employer, and to you) than being 98% in one thing.

We need experts in many fields. But in a world where change is so rapid and continuous, we need people with a wide range of skills. We need, even more, people who can learn new things quickly, and quickly become quite good at them.

In my mind, this is the real value of formal education: not just what you learned, but that you developed the skill of learning. Whatever you learned might well become obsolete – in the technology field it will definitely become obsolete. But the ability to learn new things will always be valuable.

Being really good at only one thing is:

  • Not only a waste – missing all the other things you could be good at;
  • It can also be an actual problem. If you’re only good at one thing, you might resist change, because change is a threat. I watched people who were really good at ATM networking protocol resist the move to IP, which was a threat, not being their field of expertise. Their expertise became obsolete, rather quickly. Those who adapted are now successful in a new field. Those who resisted to the end are not.

What’s in a name?

Gartner Consulting, a few years ago, offered a label for this concept that I found interesting. They suggested not using the word “generalist”, because that has come to mean (according to them) a person who can do many different things, but is not an expert in any of them. Instead, they coined the term “Versatilist”, defining this as “someone who is a specialist in a particular discipline, but can change to another role and become an expert there with ease” – someone who is, or can be, an expert in many fields, and can adopt to change. I think I like that concept.

Quotes that inspired me

I had this philosophy about professional development – about breadth vs depth – for many years before I even realized that it was a philosophy at all.

Then various quotes from literature caught my attention. Here are two: one short one long.

  • Miyamoto MusashiFrom Miyamoto Musashi: one of the greatest Samurai – who were, in turn, among the greatest warriors in history:

    A Samurai should cultivate a wide interest in the arts. Become acquainted with every art.

  • From Lazarus Long, a fictional hero in Time Enough for Love, by Robert Heinlein:"Time Enough for Love" book cover

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

    Maybe that is a little harsh, but Heinlein was famously a very prickly character,

Career path for a typical specialty worker

What’s this mean in practice? This is what I think is a pretty good career path for a typical worker with a specialty skill:

  • Start by being good at your field. Become skilled enough to be more than qualified at entry-­level, and then spend time increasing your depth.
    • Get better than “good enough”, get really good.
  • But then switch strategies.
    • Dedicate some effort to maintaining your current skill; and
    • Dedicate some effort to developing a new skill, quite different.
      • Not learning version 2 of a product where you’re already an expert in version 1.
      • Pick a new field, then develop depth again.
  • Repeat. Discover new capabilities and interests.
  • Most important:  learn something, frequently.  If it has been more than a couple of years since you took a challenging course or read a new manual or otherwise learned something new, you probably have a problem that should concern you.

This develops valuable breadth while retaining your expertise, and it hones your ability to handle world-shaking paradigm changes. Some of the things you know will be useful no matter what happens; and, more important, you are keeping alive your skills as a learner.

As an employer, I know I can hand you a new problem and you will figure it out. You’ll even enjoy it.

1 comment

  1. I’m at a moment in my career that I was granted the great possibility of choosing between becoming the technical leader from my team (depth) vs going to a different team in a broader system environment that will definitely stress and stretch me. I think I’m going with the latter to rock my boat and force me getting better at learning new things. But choosing between depth vs breadth is becoming my toughest professional decision so far.

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