In many parts of society, we ask people to specialize early and go very deep. This is the path to excellence. In Range: why generalists triumph in a specialized world, David Epstein examines the role breadth plays. I should admit my bias up front: I am definitely a width person, not a depth person. So maybe I just agreed with this book because it reinforced the story I tell myself about my success.
But I do think there’s something to this. Throughout my career, I’ve found that the best colleagues are the ones who have academic or work experience outside of the tech industry. It’s not that they’re necessarily better technically, but they grasp the context much more easily. That becomes increasingly important when dealing with novel and poorly-defined problems.
I’ve long understood the value of coursework outside one’s major. Range helped me understand why that value exists. I sometimes heard at my alma mater that “we have a liberal arts school so we can produce well-rounded engineers.” Now I think perhaps we should have fewer major courses and more gen ed courses. (In addition to ethics classes which should be added to all curricula for separate reasons.)
In the context of the current time, with conspiracy theories enjoying a disturbing degree of acceptance, I find Epstein’s emphasis on amateurs a little concerning. Yes, novices sometimes make discoveries that elude the experts. Still, we must be careful not to replace “appeal to authority” with “appeal to lack of authority”.
I didn’t find Epstein’s writing style particularly compelling. This surprised me since he’s a journalist. I suppose books are a different beast. But the arguments were well-reasoned and supported by research. I would recommend this book to anyone thinking about their future career or seeking reinforcement of their past, seemingly-odd, changes in direction.
A few months ago, Bridget Gelms shared the worst professional advice she has heard:
Early-career people in particular are encouraged to take on all tasks in order to prove themselves and — to a lesser extent — discover what they do and don’t like to do. I suspect this is more true for women. I understand why people give that advice, and I understand even more why people take it. But it turns out, saying “no” can do more to advance your career than saying yes.
One thing I’ve observed is that over time, people who say “yes” to every request get a bunch of requests dropped on them. Some of them are good, but many are a waste of their talents. Being able to say “no” when the situation warrants can establish that your time — and thus you — are valuable.
Consider this: you’re asked at the last minute to fly to another continent to be in a meeting with a potential customer for a couple of hours. The potential customer is pretty unlikely to actually sign up, or they represent a small and not-strategic gain. You could go. Or you could find another way for the customer to get the 5 minutes worth of information that you’d end up providing. By not going, you save your company a few thousand dollars in airfare and you don’t lose two days to travel. What else more valuable can you do in that time?
The example above isn’t contrived. I’ve seen it play out, and the person who said no established themselves as someone of value in the company. Of course, you can’t say “no” to everything. Sometimes a task has to be done and you’re the one that will do it, whether you like it or not. But knowing when to say “no” is a valuable skill for improving your career.
Several months ago, my brother-in-law expressed interest in systems administration. After I couldn’t talk him out of it, he asked “how do I become a sysadmin?” I gave it some thought and realized I didn’t have a good answer. So I polled friends and strangers for their stories. What resulted is yesterday’s post on the SysAdvent blog.