t-shaped: General Knowledge + Specialty

While I did have a couple of problems with the DB2 talk, to be fair with the IBM peeps, I did find one part of their talk to be very relevant and potentially useful to the audience: the concept of T-Shaped People.

As the picture (I yanked off from another site) states, T-Shaped People are people with a deep functional knowledge for their discipline while having broad knowledge in multiple disciplines. For a person to succeed in the IT industry today, he or she must develop both “bars” well.

The problem with most traditional institutions is that they only cultivate the vertical bar, training their students in only their craft. This is a very bad approach in the 21st century. In case you don’t have the time to read my previous posts about knowledge workers and W. Edwards Deming, I’ll summarize why that is a bad thing:

Jobs in IT today are very different from jobs 50 years ago.

Careers in IT nowadays are not Taylorist manual labor jobs where employees use only a single skill the whole time. First and foremost, they require the employee to have good communication and interpersonal skills. They also require the employee to be familiar with the basics of the business aspect of their jobs. Creativity and thinking out of the box is also needed, and this can only be learned by the employee through exploring different disciplines.

Of course, there is a problem with only focusing on the horizontal bar. This, as mentioned by Gina in her talk, results in people who are “Jacks of all trades, masters of none.”

Companies don’t like people without in-depth knowledge in at least one aspect of their craft. You can get tens of thousands of fresh graduates with “Familiar with Java” in their resume but only a few of them can boast of extensive practical experience in the language.

While part of the blame can be placed on institutions that don’t provide enough training to their students, the students also have the responsibility to cultivate their skills on their own. They cannot use their school’s lack of intensive training as an excuse for not mastering their craft.

In closing, I’d like to point out that I personally believe that being a T-shaped person is just the bare minimum for a person looking for success in his or her IT career. It’s okay for most IT professionals (in fact, a lot of people in the industry aren’t even T-shaped yet) but in my opinion, one can do more by evolving into another shape.

I’ll probably talk about it in a future post once the ideas coalesce in my head.

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4 Responses to T-Shaped People

  1. Jonn says:

    I’m wondering, how much effort should I put into the each bar? Specifically, for a graduating student, which should I cultivate first? I’ve been zealously expanding my vertical for 2 / 3 years before realizing my naivete. But time constraints won’t let a person expand both his horizontal and vertical bar simultaneously and at the same pace.

  2. Bry says:

    If you haven’t been doing extra-curricular activities that improve the horizontal bar such as school organizations or part-time jobs, I suggest to put more effort on that bar. Don’t worry if you can’t squeeze it in this year because of thesis work, you can still find ways to cultivate that aspect after graduation and/or in your first job.

    As for time constraints as a whole, it’s all a matter of time management. Think 80/20 principle: you only need to spend around 30% of your time in studies to succeed in college (most of what you’re doing in college isn’t applicable in the real world anyway), the remaining 70% can be used to explore other disciplines.

    Allocating 30-40% of your time to the horizontal bar should leave you with enough time to spare for social life and other things (assuming that they aren’t integrated with the horizontal bar in the first place).

  3. Jonn says:

    I’m actually graduating next month. :p
    Thanks. I read your post on the 80/20 principle too. Might turn out to be a good principle to live by.

  4. […] It might be unfair to assume that my cousin is that naive that he doesn’t know how to deal with people, but from what I’ve been hearing, it’s not that unlikely. More experience, even thought it’s not related to his engineering degree, will really help him later in life. […]

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