Specialization is for insects. That’s the last line in a passage from science fiction author Robert Heinlein (complete passage at the end of this post). You might be wondering how that applies to work and careers. To us, it speaks directly to an important point to remember when it comes to your career development. That point is the danger of relying on deep technical expertise as a guarantee for your work survival.
Why Employees Specialize or Become Experts
People fall into this trap all the time and by no fault of their own. Society and its norms have taught us to be this way. From the time you enter elementary school, and continuing through secondary education and college. Every authority figure you encounter reminds you to “do your own work”. So you do what you are told. You put our heads down and focus on producing work that is your own, and that you are proud of. When you graduate from college, you spring forth into the work world with a special set of skills that you have acquired through education and practice, and you land a job where you can hone those skills to the best of your ability.
The longer you work in your field of specialization, the deeper your expertise becomes. Before long, people are coming to you because you have a skill set that is hard to find and your work is in demand. You become the “go to” person in your company for whatever it is you were hired to do. And it feels great!
This is all fine and good, but you need to understand that there is trouble lurking around the corner. That trouble takes the form of changing organizational expectations. You see, what happens (and it happens everywhere) is, the longer you work for an organization, the more your approach to the work needs to change. The problem is (and this happens everywhere too), is that frequently the organization forgets to tell you that their expectations are changing.
Over time, your expertise needs to shift from deep expertise to broad expertise. You will be expected to understand how the work you do affects other parts of the organization. You need to be able to see how you can apply a piece of what you know to solve a problem in another department, or make a recommendation about how shifting a technology could help the business grow. You will be expected to learn the skills of coaching, teaching, and mentoring so that you can help the next wave of employees get up to speed with the technologies and processes of the organization. You will be asked to leverage your abilities so that more work can get done.
Do You Want the Good or Bad News First?
Now for the good and bad news from all of this.
First, the good news. If you get really good at broadening your skill set and leveraging your talents for the greater good, your value to the organization will increase. With increased value comes increased responsibility. For some this means a promotion to management, if that’s what you desire. For others it means expanded access to customers, the media, or technical societies where you can showcase your work or your team’s work.
Next, the bad news. If your skill set doesn’t broaden, your value to the organization will eventually start to fall. This could happen in a variety of ways. The technology you built your reputation upon could change suddenly. The organization could go in a different direction and your skills may not be needed. Or worse of all, someone sitting in an office on a higher floor might figure out that they can hire a new college grad that can get up to speed very quickly and do the work you are doing for a fraction of what you are getting paid. All of these things are bad!
And finally, the worse news of all. You could get promoted because of your technical ability BEFORE you have learned how to broaden, coach, and leverage, and continue to approach your work in the same way after you have been promoted and given formal responsibility for the supervision of a team. If this happens, your value to the organization will plummet and the very things you did to get your promoted, just may end up getting you fired.
The message here is clear. If you want to advance in your career, the path of least resistance and greatest reward is by broadening your skill set and helping others to grow.
“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.” – Robert A. Heinlein