Pretzel-shaped developers

You can't be an expert in 10 things any more than you can have 10 highest priorities.

Excuse me a moment, while I rant.

I hate the term “comb-shaped developer”.

I think it’s lazy.

I also think it’s meaningless.

I remember the first time I heard the term “T-shaped” in a conversation. The idea, if you’re unfamiliar, is that an “I-shaped” person is an expert at one thing. That is, if you were to graph their “depth of knowledge”, the graph would spike sharply down (deep) into one topic.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have a linear, or “dash-shaped”(?) person. They have a broad range of experience, but no depth in any field. Squarely in “jack of all trades, master of none” territory.

So now it should be clear what a “T-shaped” person is… Someone with broad experience in many areas, and expertise in one.

Something felt a bit off about this when I first heard it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, so I ignored that feeling.

Jump ahead a while, and I was having a conversation with someone who ran a software development agency. And he told me he only hired “comb-shaped” developers. This confused me a bit, but he elaborated…

You see, there are, as he explained, T-shaped developers; those with broad skills, and one area of expertise. Then there are π-shaped (pi-shaped) developers. You guessed it: They have two areas of expertise.

You know where this is going…

Then we have M-shaped people… with three areas of expertise.

And somewhere along the line, you come to comb-shaped people.

What the actual f…

Talk about stretching an analogy beyond any usefulness.

So this is why I think this concept is lazy. It’s a concept used by people who want the easy way out. They want to throw money at a complicated problem. It’s a lazy short-hand way for CEOs, managers, hiring managers, and recruiters, to say “I want to hire a unicorn superhero” without saying it. This perfectly describes the person who used the term with me the first time.

Of course, nobody is an expert in 20 areas. Very, very few are experts in two, and fewer still in three or four.

Almost by definition, you cannot be an expert in multiple areas. And this is why this comb-shaped term is meaningless.

A person with 10 areas of expertise is just as meaningful (or meaningless) as dev team with 10 highest-priority backlog items.

In other words: Comb-shaped is another name for dash-shaped.

So should you be an expert, or a generalist? There’s room for both in the world. Just avoid the mucky middle ground of π-, M-, and comb-shaped mediocrity.

And if you’re hiring, how do you afford the 8 experts you need to manage your system? Well, first, you probably don’t actually need 8 experts. Second, there are many ways to get the expertise you need to run your system, without hiring a full-time I- or T-shaped engineer for every skill set you need. If you could use some help in this area, get in touch with me.