One of my last posts was all about work life balance, “Your work life balance sucks“. We all have issues with prioritizing our time and allocating enough in each bucket of our lives. Family, Work, Self, Others. Here, I want to talk about your knowledge and how it’s important to be intentional in that aspect of your life too.
I seem to be surrounded with people who either know the nitty-gritty detail about the technology or subject matter that they are engrossed in OR the stereo-typical “jack of all trades”. You know the two types. The first, you can’t have a discussion with about something. They know WAY more than you do, and take the conversation very deep, very quickly. They miss the forest for the trees. These are your experts. This person knows the insides and out of the tool you’re using, and their knowledge allows you to be confident in your approach and whether an idea will work or not.
The second type of person is the typical ‘jack of all trades’. I say typical, because in this case, they know a little about a lot. I’d even say, a little about ‘some’ things. In the technology world, this person would be able to work around a bash shell, write database queries and make some updates to a web page. The counter to this, is the Java developer who doesn’t know how to write a query. The web designer who doesn’t know a lick of HTML or CSS. My point here, is that this person is wide and shallow, as opposed with the first person, who’s super deep, but very narrow.
The mental image just came to me of the iceberg. You know, something like this:
The first person will tell you about that little piece of ice that sits at the bottom of the iceberg. While that’s important to someone, and is completely valid knowledge, 99% of us don’t care, and unless the conversation is about the bottom tip of the ice berg, it’s inappropriate.
The second person, they can tell you generally about ice bergs: maybe only if it’s covered in snow. If it’s just ice, they may not know about it.
The challenge a lot of us have, is how to balance in the middle of this scale. Depending on your role, you need to find your sweet spot. For me, as a consultant/architect/VP Engineering, I need to know “enough about enough”. I need deep and wide. I’d argue that I have to know 80% about an iceberg, but more importantly, know how ice works enough to be able to make some assumptions that can later be validated or experimented on.
In the world of technology, this manifests in a lot of different ways. Mostly, it comes down to being educated enough to decide between two or more options, and picking an initial path go down. Now, anyone can pick the path, but, the sweet spot means being able to get to the fork in the path as soon as possible to determine if it’s the right path or not. Which database engine do we pick? Which time-series data storage do we use? Which visualization engine will work with our python framework, etc.
There’s absolutely no way everyone can know everything about everything. Seriously, look at the eco-system for devops these days (Back when I was first writing code, we didn’t have no automation!). It’s amazing! There are dozens of tools that do almost the same task. They overlap, they have their sweet spots too, but it takes a special kind of person with a very specific set of skills (hmm.. I’ve heard that somewhere), to determine which tool to use in a specific situation.
I want to say this is another instance of the 80/20 rule, but not exactly. Let’s go with that anyway. Instead of learning the 100% details of something, spend 80% of the time, then keep going on to other things. Don’t be so narrow focused. Think about the days of Turbo Pascal. If all you knew was 100% TP, how’s the job market these days?
Balance that with only learning 20% about something. You will never be seen as an expert. No matter what the subject matter is: Technologies, development approaches, managerial styles, etc. You need to be deep enough to be an authority to make an impact on the organization you’re in if you want to excel and succeed.
Everything in life needs a balance. Diet, exercise, hobbies, work/life, etc. Knowledge and learning is in there too. Be intentional about where you focus your energies in learning about something new, and figure out how much is enough.