On specializing & generalizing

The last Squirrel & Moose podcast reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about for a few weeks now, in so much as talking about workflow (I’m a code-in-Firebug person too, BTW, when it comes to CSS*) leads to thinking about workflow in the broader sense, and in so much as that it’s a topic Dylan & I have talked about off and on for years now.

My title at my current job (6 months yesterday!) includes the word “specialist,” which feels weird considering how much being a generalist has been part of my professional identity. I like have a broad range of skills, not being stuck in a tiny niche. And if it had been anywhere but working at Evergreen, with Susan, I would have been really hesitant to go into a specialized role.

But I have realized a few things; thinking back on my almost 15 years** creating websites (13 paid, 12 full-time), being a generalist seems to have shifted — or the scope of “web work” has increased, or something.

I like to tell the story of how I got my one and only raise at Pierce: they were doing an evaluation of all the “administrative exempt” positions (think of the Bobs in Office Space), and I had to revise the job description I was hired with. The list of things I was doing was twice as long as the list of what I was hired to do. Something similar happened when I helped write a job description for hiring my replacement at TwinStar: a significant expansion of duties.

Only some of that is my unfortunate tendency to get enthusiastic about more things than I have time or energy for — most of it was just new things that happened in those years. Social media of various sorts, email marketing, AdWords, content management systems, and just plain higher expectations of what ought to be on the web.

It got to the point where it was just too broad for me, and I was spread too thin over things outside of my strengths.

So on some level, being a specialist is a bit of a relief. It was much the same way when I got my first full-time web job; I was coming from a position where I worked on the website, supervised a secretary, organized events, ran a speakers’ bureau, and did a little bit of print design. Going to the web WAS specializing. Sometimes it’s just nice to be able to say that someone else has the strengths to do X really well (on the one hand), or when X is something I dislike or that’s problematic for me, that X is not actually my responsibility (on the other).

I’m also lucky enough to be on a team where I can use my broader skillset when it makes sense, and not just the things I was hired to do. I credit my boss for being open to that, and to some extent also the environment of Evergreen. Or perhaps I should say that I find the environment to be empowering in keeping the spirit of a generalist, even as I do some specializing.

So I guess overall I’d say I’m ok with being a “specialist,” more so than I would have thought.

I don’t have time right now, but I do also want to write about the experience of being on a web team for the first time, and the experience of being in a new team where we’re all working out how we work together. Soon! (Hopefully.)

* Just yesterday told someone that not having access to Firebug was like having someone chop off my arm, as far as getting stuff done.

** First started playing around with HTML in about February 1998, with the happy confluence of a cubicle neighbor who “did web stuff” where I worked, C’s first new computer, and IIRC, our first Internet access at home. Has it really been that long?!