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Specialization and Consequences

I was in a meeting recently with some other senior level developers.

Take your blinders off. (See foot note.)

We were joking about what passes today for “full-stack”.
By senior, I mean that the experience in the room was 30 years minimum, and all of us are still coding. 
Full stack used to mean literally everything pertaining to IT: pulling cable, physically networking servers to workstations (twinax and later), hardware/network configuration, migrations and upgrades, operating system upgrades, operations, disaster recovery, back-ups, help desk, printing/bursting/folding invoices/reports, BA, DBA, user requirements/experience, customer QA/QC, and of course, software development in multiple languages and on multiple platforms.
So you can imagine the amount of laughing, head shaking, eye-rolling and of course war stories the very narrow, modern definition of "full stack" caused. As did much of the current younger industry attitudes.
The point of that preamble narrative is not to walk down memory lane. It is to highlight that our field has specialized dramatically over the 35 years that I've been participating. 
Departments within departments have evolved due to specialization. And with that specialization, an array of organizational, behavioral and professionally disfunctional attitudes have surfaced in what used to be an incredibly united field. 
Do I sound like an old man? Yes. Guilty. 
But I'm not sure I care. History offers everyone healthy perspectives into cyclic repetitions for which IT is also guilty – and for which we have our very own Einsteinian definition of insanity

Specialization and Production Lines

Americans have a love affair with production line thinking. It permeates the very DNA of our society. 
Any chance that we can force work of any kind into a production line model – we will – because we all immediately recognize the patterns. Even if it doesn’t fit – like the software development lifecycle (SDLC). It is falsely, safe rearview mirror validation. 
One of the main supporting structures of this model is specialization via division of labor. 
Under this model, it takes an entire series of (siloed) specialists to get a product out the door – with all the antagonistic boundary issues that entails. 
Business values the entire product picture; and it hopes that all the specialists co-operate to achieve that goal. In this – they can be stymied by a culture of internecine squabbling between specialists fighting over world views. (This is exactly why I prefer the CATWOE analysis over standard SWOT as it captures all the people pieces that derail projects and products.)
Specialists are, unfortunately, simply cogs in the production line model, and are often surprised that they are valued only as such – and treated accordingly (replaceability, commodification and no voice at the big table.)
That’s because in this model, a specialist alone is not capable to push something off a “production line.”


Does the world reward and encourage specialization because it’s impossible to know everything? 
Absolutely. I too, have made a career out of specialization – but never at the expense of blindness to business or my environment. I have never prayed to some technical God – because there are simply so many of them – growing every day. 
Technology is a tool to do something else: to create and add to value – to change things and make lives easier. Anything less is an intellectual, technical and professional trapping. And it’s OK to live there. But understand it comes with a ceiling.
There will always be an industry need for specialists – someone you can turn to for the very deep “how” of something – The Gurus. I have large respect for most people in my industry who do this – they are the go to people we have all come to depend upon for new methods and to absorb lessons learned. But they are the last people I turn to for larger more connected, complete pictures.
Holding large amounts of specialized knowledge (whether technical or domain) can make you indispensable. Job security! Right up until your information withholding, poor collaboration skills or technical myopia undermines the very organization who pays your salary.

Side Effects/Unintended Consequences

Specialists who pride themselves on high vertical knowledge, are often shocked that they have no voice at the table for larger pictures. This is a common whining point in my field – that "they don’t respect my opinions!" in business. 
Specialists see themselves, and pride themselves, as highly sought after professionals leveraged to (re)solve explicit problems. Trouble is, far enough down that rabbit hole, and that’s all you are good for. You are effectively type-cast as such, and while you *might* be able to play other roles, you will rarely be called upon to do so. 
That’s because the further down the rabbit hole you go, the less and less ability you have to contextualize your specialization in useful, practical ways; the less and less you’re able to talk with other areas of business or other disciplines. This leads to an unintended, but willful ignorance about your environment and how your specialization contributes. 
This is no different than many academic fields of study which, after being excised from the real world for research, always seem to require re-integration.
Specialists will be called upon as expert witnesses, to offer a particular insight. They are single world views to be taken into account for larger pictures.
That’s because you are a siloed expert in your field – not other fields. For most specialists (not all,) being smart in one field does not infer that you are smart in another. (Adaptive learners and large picture thinkers are the exception.)
In this age of specialization men who thoroughly know one field are often incompetent to discuss another. The great problems of the relations between one and another aspect of human activity have for this reason been discussed less and less in public. – Richard Feynman. (full quote here.)
Most specialists, by definition, are the antithesis of large picture thinkers. They are people who see the trees in exceptional detail but draw very definitive “not my responsibility” lines in the dirt between the trees. They rarely see the forrest. 
Business acumen and Entrepreneurial spirit requires a multi-view approach – generalization – and understanding of the connective tissue between boundaries. Specialization is a contribution – not a siloed competitive choice. Despite the current industry tone of anti-Project Managers and Business Analysts, specialization is exactly why there will always be a need for such roles. 
A specialist screaming from a silo about how optimizing their worldview will create superior solutions – is usually only supporting or protecting one worldview or silo. Those opinions should be taken into account and balanced with other concerns.  
This is often why business is perceived as having low trust for IT specialists voicing opinions about larger pictures. That burden is on us. We have created a false equivalency for ourselves believing that specialist trust earned in one field is transferable to another. It is not. 
This is exactly why I encourage developers to talk business language and not techno-babble.

Specialization – The Dark Side

We have a specialized community who know only one language – the language of self-absorption – preaching to the choir. This is an industry fail. 
The dark side of specialization is insularism. 
My industry has "progressively” (read: regressively) shed off parts of their jobs that they find annoying (BA, QA, UI/UX, PM, documentation, help desk, testing etc.) with the usual prima-donna distasteful eye-rolling, all in the name of specialization. Only to watch those decisions backfire and come full circle – (dev/ops, agility, current anti-BA’s/PM’s sentiment, developer/QA antagonism.) 
In general, it seems that specialists lead us to antagonistic environments, followed by a cycle of generalist approaches to fix broken boundary issues. It also appears that specialization is at the root of short-term thinking. 
We don’t have history majors. Our “learning" industry is too busy rushing forward to actually learn. Learning has become the accumulation of deep short-term knowledge with no historical business or environmental context. 


Given the right dysfunctional personality (common in my industry) a SME (subject matter expert) is only ever one step away from the status of SMA (subject matter asshole.) 
This pride/arrogance/belligerence (wrongly called confidence) that comes with high vertical knowledge can tip a SME into a SMA. This toxic team member can hold your company to ransom by bringing your specialized production line model to a complete halt. (Worthy of another blog post.)
Externally rife cultures of technical hero worship promote behaviors where peer respect trumps business usefulness. 
In order to show their metal, the SMA will lead with defensive confrontation against other siloed specialists. It's an incredibly destructive form of competition – the organizational psychosis of internal rivalry. (And it always reminds me about that joke where the internal organs compete.) 


These type of specialists are not capable of collaboration. Instead, they “contribute” using confrontation, critique, caustic communication, sarcastic ridicule and competition. There’s more to this mindset, and much of this was written about in “Tribal Leadership” by Dave Logan et al. 
Central to his thesis and 10 year research, is that the majority of organizations cannot mature to Stage-4 collaborative cultures held hostage by high degrees of inter-specialist bickering… 
If you think that doesn’t apply to IT, you’d be wrong. (If you’re not able to see regular human organizational behaviors and require an IT lens to view all of this, try “The Culture Game” by Dan Mezick. If you can see organizational culture without that lens you might like "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team." All exemplars of the dangers of specialization.)
Collaborative cultures win because they don’t see the world with the singularity of specialist hard line production boundaries. Generalists appreciate that the superior products and problem solving (and innovation) come from connecting the dots and reconciling the power of boundary areas via collaboration. 
Production line, specialist models were clearly built to avoid collaboration and communication “You do your job, and I’ll do mine". Instead, they promoted siloed confrontation and specialized line blame. 
This is exactly why older Line Managers see “talking” as a sign of not working instead of communication and problem solving. Specialized assembly line models required almost zero communication: “Just shut up and do your job…” 
This is also why proponents for production line models in SDLC will always be complaining about the type of work they perform not being understood. SDLC just doesn’t fit into that model – but it does confirm a bias. 



The worst ilk of specialists create the very silos that business has been trying to break down with the agile movement. (Ironically, this industry is also rife with SMA infighting.)

The agile movement was a reaction to traditional Production Line thinking, manufacturing age cultures that most SDLC was forced into. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that people are harkening back to older simpler days of what they’ve known for 100+ years… It’s certainly topical. 

Personality Types

For those who have a predisposition to ignore the forest for the trees, specialization provides a place to excel. It allows you to turn a blind eye to larger system-thinking pictures and promote more lines in production.

It is, however, evangelical specialists who create petty, frivolous holy wars in IT, confirming an external stereotype with which others view us.

For those who are predisposed to these religious disputes, getting behind a particular band wagon or denomination – specialization is a great path to pursue. You can be absolutely right about a whole ton of stuff that doesn’t really matter and which changes frequently. You can impress your peers with your vertical prowess and participate in petty debates over fads while hypocritically disparaging Management for similar behaviors. 

For many in IT, where we have gained a reputation for anti-social work habits, specialization becomes a place to hide while convincing ourselves and others of our value. In doing so, we believe that we are delivering and contributing to the organization as a whole – at a distance. 

A specialist is able to de-couple themselves from their immediate environment(s) often to the detriment of the entire picture. The generalist will keep you off the front page of the Wall Street Journal – a specialist won’t understand why it’s such a big deal. 

Generalists see overall common sense where the specialist sees only: "not my job.” 

Specialists seem to have a high degree of ignorance about anything else outside of his/her speciality (oft times current events and reality) – by choice. That makes for inferior application of ideas and a Maslow (hammer/nail) approach. 

That in turn makes for very dangerous decision making. A specialist rarely thinks about consequences outside of their vertical – it simply becomes someone else’s problem. This workplace classic fuels more confrontational siloed stubbornness and politicking after poor decisions have been played out. 

Frankly, if all you have to bring to the table is a tall vertical, I’m not particularly interested in what you have to say. It will probably lack common sense. It’s my experience that highly specialized people produce inferior software and offer ignorantly naive opinions. They aren’t able to see around the corners because they’re being too careful about staying between the lines. 

Ignorance in my field frequently looks like unawareness of environment and typically manifests as non-comprehension of people and finances. 


Every good senior level developer I know has graduated from the self-absorption of technical prowess to imagine how it can be applied to business, new products or innovation. Not just technology for its own sake. 

There is always a time to geek out over some line of code, the beauty and simplicity of a language or the aesthetics of an architecture. But it should always be checked against – and connected to – some real world problem. Anything less is specialist self-indulgence and rabbit holing. 

As a professional, specialization is something you keep under the covers for yourself, and your peers. The purpose of your specialization is to bring it to the table (minus the techno-babble) for actual practical use in the workplace – not for your peers adoration.

It can be argued that specialization is a primary threat to diversity because ideological competition for many, trumps collaboration. 

Frankly, it is often generalists (and history majors) who bring more to the table. People with other life experiences and world views. It is certainly one definition of diversity.

When a society values winning at any cost, when it values belligerent communication (defined as strength and not backing down) and when it then adds specialization (mine vs. yours) into the mix, you have all the requisite ingredients for highly dysfunctional organizational cultures.

This is the difference between short-term vs. long-term thinking. Many specialists can only see to the edge of their own field/industry. People who see the work differently, in my opinion, offer more to software development and organizations. 

Generalists can relate to other business areas and ultimately the marketplace – which is where your head should be at.

Not knee deep in some language du jour.

Footnote – "Take your blinders off"

Horse Blinders are coverings placed over a horse's eyes which prevent the horse from seeing anything that isn't straight ahead. When wearing blinders, the horse can't see anything to the sides. This helps prevent a horse from being scared or spooked by things it can't see which can cause the rider to be thrown.

The idea is that if you're wearing blinders, you have a very narrow view of things, and you aren't aware of everything that's happening around you. If I tell you to take your blinders off, I'm really telling you to look at everything around you and make an informed decision based on all the information available, instead of just making decisions based upon what you know by only looking at a small part of the problem.









About the Author
I’ve had the good fortune to travel and work internationally. I’ve also had the good fortune to have grown up in New Zealand and have lived the American “immigrant experience” for more than half of my life. I’ve also had an unorthodox musical journey that led me to and kept me in Kansas City. Music, IT and travel became partners along the way helping me appreciate multiple worldviews and the concepts of cross-disciplinary approaches to life and work. My non-conventional experiences reflect my meanderings about this interesting occupational field. The beauty of having been in IT for 30 years is that our solutions become predictably cyclic while our problems remain the same. Culture is a topic I’m rather obsessive about. I firmly believe that it will help to usher in a renaissance in American business – oddly enough in the hands of IT.

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