Generalists! If you are a person "competent in several different fields or activities", this is a love letter to you. I have a question. Are you a proud generalist? In the wrong work environment having a diverse background can feel like a liability, not something to be proud of. Take heart!
Maybe your resume reads something like mine. I've been a chip engineer, a writer, a manager, a business consultant, a software engineer. That's a decorated past, and yet I rarely feel like the smartest person on my team. I often feel unsure of exactly what my role is. My technical abilities don't always scale with the needs of my project. Such is the lot of generalists.
Know what? I'm fine with that.
For starters, it helps to work with the right team. At productOps, from the CEO down, we explicitly value people who wear multiple hats. After 20 years of reflection on my zigzagging career, I've come to realize there's nothing wrong with me or my career. In fact, I'm discovering that we generalists have super powers of our own.
Let's review the roles and strengths that generalists bring to work, shall we? My hope is that more workplaces will see the value in recruiting generalists, and that more of us will activate our superpowers earlier.
You swing between silos
Superpower: Communication Skills
Any sufficiently large project is a multi-disciplinary exercise. As a generalist, you have baseline fluency in multiple arenas. This puts you in a special position to convene conversations between disparate silos. You can hold space for multiple (sometimes conflicting) perspectives to all be valid and respected simultaneously. What you see as obvious—"Oh, these folks don't see eye to eye, and we need a live conversation to resolve it"—isn't obvious to everyone else.
In this respect, communication skills are your superpower that amplifies your value: translating requirements and values between teams. Uncovering the missing conversations, and then starting them. Holding space for multiple viewpoints and values. Developing a narrative that includes all sides. You can do that. Not everyone can.
You link between phases of a project
Superpower: Project Management
Projects go through different phases, from inception, to execution, to eventual decommissioning. Each phase has a different energy to it, and can require surprisingly different skills. As I look back at the defining roles and projects of my career, I notice that in most cases I was a link from one phase of the team to the next. Here again, what you might see as obvious—"We need to shift gears and think about the next phase!"—isn't obvious to everyone else. Not everyone sees beyond opportunities to repeat the same action again and again. You can do that.
In this respect, project management skills are a superpower to amplify your value. Being able to see from multiple perspectives, you have a broader awareness of next steps. What needs to happen next on every front? How do the various efforts interact? What conversations need to happen? Even if you're not the Project Manager, your insight can be instrumental for the team as it does sprint planning. You bring a broad awareness to project planning. Not everyone does.
You are interested in many things
Superpowers: Flexibility to shapeshift, deep dive, learn, and integrate
Part of what makes you a generalist is that you like doing a variety of things. You're good at a lot of different things. Not the best, maybe, but you get the job done when you put your mind to it. That's not true for everyone. Some people have narrower comfort zones, or don't want to step back from the cutting edge in their field. A project that sounds like drudgery for a colleague could be an exciting adventure for you.
In this respect, your superpower is flexibility to shapeshift into the player needed right now. You can deep-dive and be the team expert in a new subject, to research new options, and help integrate new practices into the team. So your team needs to develop Quality Assurance best practices? The product needs documentation? Someone needs to research options for integrating an e-commerce platform? You can do that. Not everyone can.
Sharpen Your Super Powers
Did you notice that the superpowers I mention are learnable skills? They're not innate; you can practice and get better. That's good news, because it means we can hone these powers. We can make ourselves more valuable as generalists.
As I mentioned, I'm happy to have found a workplace that explicitly values generalists. As a consulting firm, productOps' employees have to be versatile. Individual employees often participate in multiple diverse projects in the span of a year. We have to hire based on more than our needs for the project du jour. For me, interviewing with productOps was the first time I ever felt comfortable admitting, "You're hiring for X, but I actually want to do Y and Z," before I got the job. Four years on, it's nice to have found a home that values me as a generalist and knows how to leverage my superpowers.
My generalist brethren and sistren, be proud! Let us Go Forth and Generalize!