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Specialists or Generalists: Who are best as Developers? Expand / Collapse
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Posted Monday, August 29, 2011 8:33 AM
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I pretty much avoid recursion when I write programs. I like to see iterative code as an explicit control structure. I've always thought that this was just a personal preference so I'm surprised to read that there are business cases that "require" recursion as a programming solution. Maybe a programming language requires it (such as those languages implementing functional programming), but a business case?

Post #1166935
Posted Monday, August 29, 2011 8:36 AM


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krowley (8/29/2011)
I am working on moving from being a generalist to being a specialist in SQL Server and keep looking for the best course of study to take me there. If there was a simple well laid out path, even one that was 2000 pages long, this would be very helpful for me and others like me.


2000's a bit on the low side. Maybe 20000...

http://www.sqlskills.com/T_MCMVideos.asp
http://www.sqlskills.com/MCM.asp

40+ hours of video and a long list of blogs and books (and that's just the admin side)

Edit: oh and a few hundred hours of practice too.



Gail Shaw
Microsoft Certified Master: SQL Server 2008, MVP
SQL In The Wild: Discussions on DB performance with occasional diversions into recoverability

We walk in the dark places no others will enter
We stand on the bridge and no one may pass

Post #1166936
Posted Monday, August 29, 2011 8:51 AM
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There are two sides to this debate. First, should I just be a DBA or should I also learn the other technologies as well and become a generalists or just specialize as a DBA. Second, given that I am a DBA am I already a generalists DBA or am I specialized DBA, i.e. Production DBA, Development DBA, BI Architect. I would contended that the longer you work as a DBA the more general you become simply because you have touched many different types of technologies over the years. Also, you need to generally be aware of the other technologies in order to communicate with developers and managers.

By definition, a Data Architect is a highly specialized generalist. You had better be a specialist in SQL Server, but a generalist in other RDBMS. You also need to have a high level understanding of current front end development tools. In order to converse with other members of the team, I need to know current Server and Storage Technology. I should be able understand nightly enterprise scheduling and the fact that my application may not be they only one or even the most important platform for a Data Center to care about. I need to understand the business of the company and how to read financial reports and understand C-Level needs and wants.

… On Second thought, maybe I should just specialize in SQL Servers and only talk to computers … or better yet, mop some floors.
Post #1166944
Posted Monday, August 29, 2011 9:06 AM


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GilaMonster (8/29/2011)
. . . Edit: oh and a few hundred hours of practice too.

Make that a few thousand -- planning year is 1,500 hours and it takes several years...
Post #1166953
Posted Monday, August 29, 2011 9:07 AM


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Mike, much thanks for a thought-provoking editorial!
Post #1166954
Posted Monday, August 29, 2011 10:14 AM
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Oh, good article, Mike. Well, here I am, one of those "jack of all trades, master of none" type of developers. In a real sense, though, I prefer this. One of the things I've like about my position, and probably one of the reasons why I've stayed here so long, is that I get to do a lot of different things. Database development (really T-SQL development, in particular stored procs, views and triggers), middle-tier development (in the past that was COM+ components and now its WCF), and front-end development (in the past that was VB6, and now its ASP.NET and WPF/Silverlight). However, looking at it from the other side (management), they are simply unwilling to pay for more developers, period. We won't hire specialists, because we cannot afford the overhead. Does it take me, and my other co-worker longer to do anything? Of course; but that isn't going to change.

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Connect with me on LinkedIn.
Post #1166987
Posted Monday, August 29, 2011 10:59 AM
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I think that all developers start out as specialists and over time become generalists unless they decide to make a concerted effort to remain a specialist. How many DBAs have had multiple comical instances to report over beers with other DBAs about some idiotic process or SQL code written by a developer because they couldn't be bothered to learn anything about a database (the comic Raw Materials comes to mind here)?

I also think that if you're a specialist, and all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A company needs both specialists and generalists, or they are losing out on the big picture. Projects can't be siloed, and good communication can avoid this, but how many projects really run that way?
Post #1167031
Posted Monday, August 29, 2011 11:11 AM


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jn_gray (8/29/2011)
I think that all developers start out as specialists and over time become generalists unless they decide to make a concerted effort to remain a specialist. . . .

Right on. Note that if you want to be a team lead, you have to be a generalist. It takes lots of continuous learning, most often on your time.
Post #1167042
Posted Monday, August 29, 2011 11:37 AM
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In general, I agree with the above posters.

Note that a "generalist" is merely someone with more than one specialty and/or sub-specialty; they may, but are unlikely to, have reasonable knowledge of whatever you need as well as LISP, Prolog, ADA, MicroVAX administration, iSCSI over WAN-based 10Gbps Ethernet, and Token Ring.

Really good "generalists" with sub-specialties in a given field are often better than low to mid range "specialists" in that field.

The above problem was a result of some developers not understanding set based coding; that has nothing to do with "generalist" vs specialist.

Note that in interaction issues in particular, one good generalist with the relevant sub-specialties can act as a catalyst to solve problems far faster and cheaper than merely having five or six specialists in a conference room (imagine a DB issue that's showing in the DB, but goes through the OS, the HBA firmware, the fiber network, the WAN, the SAN, the SAN replication, and the spindle configuration at the other end). Sometimes they can even dig in and solve the problem themselves.

Sometimes it's as easy as "Oh, wait; that's not a code issue, that's an Active Directory permissions issue when you're running as a regular user". Sometimes it's not.
Post #1167061
Posted Monday, August 29, 2011 12:42 PM
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Interesting article... however, like many people here, I disagree with the comparison of generalist vs specialist... but favor the comparison of expert vs amateur.

I've always prided myself on being a generalist. And if you think being a generalist = non-expert => lower pay, think again. I've been over six-figure annual salary since 23 years-old working for Fortune 50 to SMBs. With a solid computer science background, an "expert generalist" understands (or at least quickly come up-to-speed with) the pros/cons of each technology, language, programming model, yada yada... An expert generalist can dive into the details of any task at hand and come up with an efficient solution. At least that has been my experience, your mileage may vary...

Also, you can read all the books in the world and gain more knowledge, but there's one thing you can't improve on, no matter how much time or effort: intelligence. In a team, you need different types of smarts: knowledge and intelligence (or both if you are lucky).

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