Are you T-shaped?

You may have contemplated the following question when starting out your career in software testing.

Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?

When I first started. I wanted to know as much about everything as I could.

Never content with only learning about what I needed to know to do my job. The entire stack of subjects that fed into the software testing craft fascinated me.

I would consume books, blog posts and take courses from everything from software development, mental models and various domain-specific subjects consistently. Not only to get a better idea of the field I was in.

But just because it was interesting to me.

Take Queen guitarist Brian May for example. Not only is the guy a talented guitarist, songwriter and musician. He also holds degrees in Maths, Psychics. A PhD in Astrophysics as well as being a vocal animal rights activist. A truly well-rounded personality.

I recently discovered that this concept of having a wide knowledge base, but also the depth of specialised expertise in one particular area. Is known as a T-shaped person and is something that I think can be extremely useful for most people to adopt.

Just because you are specialised in one area. Does not mean that it ties all your knowledge up in it.

Let’s start out by looking at what a generalist and specialist are. Understand how the T-shaped person combines the parts from each of these personalities. And then close on some ways that you can become T-shaped and create the valuable knowledge and skills that will serve you throughout your career.

What is a generalist?

We sometimes refer to generalists as ‘Jack of all trades, but master of none’. The name stirs up images in the mind of someone proclaiming their great at doing a particular task. But when results are shown, they are just about average.

But while they might not have enough depth in a particular subject to claim themselves as experts. Their comprehensive list of transferable skills makes them flexible, adaptable, and excellent team members.

Their wide range of experience in various settings enables them to think creatively, engage with many people, and because of their wide outlook. Understand and contribute to an expansive number of tasks. Making them valuable in an organisation. But unfortunately, they can never achieve mastery and risk not being able to stand out from the crowd.

What is a specialist?

These are the people who have taken a particular subject (let’s use software testing). Drilled down on a particular area (say, exploratory testing). And have gained enough experience and expertise, through hours of deliberate practice, to refer to themselves as specialists in the field.

This specialised knowledge allows them to command higher salaries and be highly respected amongst their peers. Unfortunately, this also means that specialists also have a slimmer number of opportunities open to them. Not being able to transfer their existing knowledge or function well in multidisciplinary environments and teams.

Work is changing

The rise of AI is encroaching on our workplaces, and specialists are in the targets sights. And whether or not we like it, we need to be ready to adapt to this future change and provide our employers with a new set of skills.

In short. We need to have the wide experience and adaptability of generalists. But also the knowledge and targeted experience of the specialists.

Not doing so, risk’s professions going the same way as the book peddler, the Victorian knocker-upper. Or the Indian water carrier (yes, carrying water was a thing).

What does being T-shaped look like?

If we were to visualise how a T-shaped person is structured. The below image would give us a good sign.

Another variation on this is more like an E that has shifted 90 degrees to the right. With multiple specialised subject areas. You can combine them in ways that people with only specialised knowledge or only general knowledge can only dream of.

The best example of someone who is highly T/E shaped is Elon Musk. Not just being satisfied with specialised knowledge in creating businesses, finance and science. He has combined this depth of knowledge with his general experience areas to create amazing solutions to the problems of the world. Ones that are not only interesting to him. But are also contributing to mankind and the advancement of our technological pursuits.

How do I become T-shaped?

Building up to be a T-shaped person needs to start with a broad base of knowledge. Then after a time, you need to choose one of those areas and go deep into it.

So with software testing. To become a T-shaped tester. You should start by learning as much as you can about the fundamentals of the craft. Then after a while, look at one area in particular (like automated testing, exploratory testing etc). And really focus on that.

It takes time to build up the knowledge base needed and you might be tempted to narrow in on a speciality too early. But I would advise against this.

It might seem that the best way to be is a specialist in one area. But like the renaissance men of years ago. Instead, you are more likely to succeed if you have multiple specialities, a broad knowledge base and can adapt to different working environments.

Dedicating yourself to becoming T-shaped takes a lot of effort, grit and self-motivation. You need to be curious about a wide range of topics. Be a constant learner and never be satisfied with your current knowledge base.

But the positives hugely outweigh the negatives. You will become more valuable in your company. Have an increased level of focus in your daily tasks. But the most important part that I find compelling is that it is a more interesting life to lead.

Posted by Kevin Tuck

Kevin Tuck is an ISTQB qualified software tester with nearly a decade of professional experience. Well versed in creating versatile and effective testing strategies. He offers a variety of collaborative software testing services. From managing your testing strategy, creating valuable automation assets, or serving as an additional resource.

2 Replies to “Are you T-shaped?”

  1. It’s funny how ideas go in and out of fashion. The British Civil Service, for instance, used to rely on “generalists”, who had a broad grasp of a range of subjects but could call in specialists when required. The whole organisation was T-shaped. But this fell out of favour in the 1980s, possibly because the generalists were themselves drawn from too narrow a pool (mainly Oxbridge humanities graduates). Where we are now, with public debate having gone through a phase of “we don’t need experts”, is interesting. Before COVID-19, there were voices in government looking for people with left-field ideas to broaden the range of knowledge and experience; perhaps now, the expert is going to come back into fashion.

    You give the example of Elon Musk. One of the other things that has a bearing on his broad experience range is that he acknowledges his enthusiasm for science fiction novels, a genre which embraces every possible area of enquiry and combines that with left-field speculation about how things might be different and equally how unintended consequences can arise from any decision or change in science, technology or society. The broad base of experience also needs input from a free-ranging imagination; testers need a similar imagination to consider risks, consequences or just how this new feature or that innovative app might work when released into the Real World.


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