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, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

That’s from Robert Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long.

Peter Merel coined this version for developers:

A programmer should be able to fix a bug, market an application, maintain a legacy, lead a team, design an architecture, hack a kernel, schedule a project, craft a class, route a network, give a reference, take orders, give orders, use configuration management, prototype, apply patterns, innovate, write documentation, support users, create a cool web-site, email efficiently, resign smoothly. Specialization is for recruiters.

When I read that it definitely reminds me of some of my favorite colleagues, and something I aspire to myself even though I’m very heavily balanced toward the “lead a team” part right now in my life.

Even as technology is becoming more accessible, modern web development grows more complex. Some might look at that is discouraging, I prefer to think that no matter how far along you get you can still have a lifetime of learning ahead of you.

For interesting debate on the above, check out the c2 wiki Specialization for Insects discussion (last edited March, 2012) and also the page that says “If specialization is for insects then I’d very much like to be a humble insect.” (Last edited November, 2005. I love digging around older parts of the internet.)

9 thoughts on “Specialization is for Insects, and Developers?

  1. Reminds me of CrossFit, where “our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.”

  2. Totally agree that web development is getting almost too complex to keep up with or even get started in (especially mid 30s!). I do think WordPress.org offers a lot of solutions to this growing problem for anyone with an idea.

  3. Lazarus Long and that quote are treasures to me. The first sentence inspires approaching challenges willing to learn. The second dramatically illustrates what a misanthropic jerk he could be. Specialists made his entire life possible. Everyone he loved was a specialist. He just loved himself more. It served him well.

  4. That’s a tricky one ! Maybe the good way is to become specialist in multiple areas, not everything, but maybe at least 3 or 4 like people do with languages.

  5. I’m not sure how important “market an app” is. I could be biased. I hate businessy thing. On the other hand, I’d like more people to use the open source projects I write.

    Someone give me a paycheck and coffee and I’ll give them code. I do agree with understanding sysadminning and network things though.

  6. “Time Enough For Love”, if I recall correctly. Great book. I always preferred to be a special generalist myself. :-)

    I do love Heinlein, but his short stories were best. In the longer novels, he tended to ramble and inject too much of himself. Although I must say that if I ever wanted to explain a revolution or teach orbital mechanics, then “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is on the reading list. :-D

  7. If “cook a tasty meal” implies being able to scramble eggs properly and deliciously I accept Lazarus’ advice. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, should be able to do that.

    Earlier instructions for individual suitability came from Castiglione in the Book of the Courtier:

    “Therefore he who wishes to be a good pupil, besides performing his tasks well, must put forth every effort to resemble his master, and, if it were possible, to transform himself into his master. And when he feels that he has made some progress, it will be very profitable to observe different men of the same calling, and governing himself with that good judgment which must ever be his guide, to go about selecting now this thing from one and that thing from another. And as the bee in the green meadows is ever wont to rob the flowers among the grass, so our Courtier must steal this grace from all who seem to possess it, taking from each that part which shall most be worthy praise…

    But having before now often considered whence this grace springs, laying aside those men who have it by nature, I find one universal rule concerning it, which seems to me worth more in this matter than any other in all things human that are done or said: and that is to avoid affectation to the uttermost and as it were a very sharp and dangerous rock; and, to use possibly a new word, to practice in everything a certain nonchalance that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought. From this I believe grace is in large measure derived, because everyone knows the difficulty of those things that are rare and well done, and therefore facility in them excites the highest admiration; while on the other hand, to strive and as the saying is to drag by the hair, is extremely ungraceful, and makes us esteem everything slightly, however great it be.

    Accordingly we may affirm that to be true art which does not appear to be art; nor to anything must we give greater care than to conceal art, for if it is discovered, it quite destroys our credit and brings us into small esteem. And I remember having once read that there were several very excellent orators of antiquity, who among their other devices strove to make everyone believe that they had no knowledge of letters; and hiding their knowledge they pretended that their orations were composed very simply and as if springing rather from nature and truth than from study and art; the which, if it had been detected, would have made men wary of being duped by it.”

    I suspect Heinlein read the Book of the Courtier, tho (natch) I could be wrong. No clue about Merel but he has the gist of it.

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