The rise of the T-shaped developer


What shape are you in? Speaking personally, I drink too much coffee and get too little sleep. But that’s not really what I mean. I’m talking primarily about your skill-set.

Historically we’ve been an industry of specialists – you were either front end or back end, you might be a Flash ninja or a JavaScript guru, whatever. Fundamentally you would have deep skills in one particular area. As a result you could, if you so wished, sit in your own fiefdom and not worry too much about the stuff that went on outside.

Of course, as anyone who’s been around the block a few times will know – things change. HTML 3.2 has been eclipsed by 4 and now 5. CSS is evolving as is JavaScript. New devices are emerging all the time. Nothing stays the same for long.

For me, it’s one of the things that makes the industry so exciting. But increasingly it’s also demanding that developers become more multi-skilled (or at the very least have a deeper appreciation for the skills that sit outside their own specialisms). And to thrive in a highly changeable future, you need to spread your bets.

A number of years back, some clever and no-doubt highly-paid consultant at McKinsey & Co came up with the notion of the T-shaped person (find a good explanation of it here). Essentially this is someone who has deep skills in one particular area but also has a wider understanding and empathy for other areas they come into contact with. Areas they can then apply their own vertical skills to in order to create a better solution to whatever challenges they’re facing.

So take us web-type people. These days of course you’ll need all the usual HTML and CSS skills. Perhaps some Sever Side skills. But if you haven’t done so already, you should also be adding an appreciation of user experience, touch interfaces, context-driven animations and what JavaScript can do beyond simple image hovers. You’ll need to understand how to develop for devices where every decision has an affect on battery life. And you’ll need to be able to solve problems caused by any number of factors.

Ultimately it’s the end consumer that has the greatest influence on what skills will be valued in the future. The sites and apps we build will revolve around their needs (not what we happen to be good at). So to ensure your career is as future-proofed as possible, it’s time to get seriously T-shaped.

Over to you. Apart from the skills listed above, what else do you think developers need to get T-shaped about?

Comments (5)

  1. I think the paradigm shift in the developer skillset will be from having an encyclopaedic knowledge of language-specific syntax to a more general 'ways to do things'/'angles from which to approach problems'.

    It's much better to learn general principles and be able to google the exact syntax required (and know what you're googling for!) rather than the old 'Javascript Ninja' school of thought where there's too much emphasis on knowledge and not enough on thought process and overall strategy.

  2. Tane Piper says:

    I see myself more as a frontend, server side and Mobile developer (having done some Android, and now learning ObjC and iOS development) – in terms of design, I can use Photoshop but I have no artistic creativity.

    But I do think Mobile development is a different arm to frontend and server side because the programming brings other challenges like different UI and UX, battery and memory management and other features no present in desktop or server development.

  3. Bart Lewis says:

    Couldn't agree more. Diversification (as it is in many things) is key. T-Shaped developer sounds a little too esoteric to me though. I prefer "End to End Web Developer". Of course, this might not include mobile as much. Maybe "End to End Application Developer"?

    Bart Lewis http://www.bartlewis.me

  4. mimeArtist says:

    I'd be a lot further down the line if I didn't have to spend so much time ensuring sites behaved nicely in any form of IE :) But pleased Microsoft are rectifying that, and consumers are apparently flocking to IE9 now

  5. Hemant says:

    Your right Martin. I have worked as a pure Front end developer for almost 3 years but now as .NET developer and improving my back end skills. And because of my front end skills I find my mind set very different and confident than other pure .NET developers.