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T shaped people

T-Shaped people are people who are deep or expert in one particular skill set and also have a number of complementary or tangential skills that they are shallower in. It is important to note that they do have a primary area of expertise and are quite different from a generalist or a jack of all trades (as the old saying goes, "Jack-of-all-trades; Master of none"). T-Shaped people are like the traditional I-Shaped person, a specialist, but they also branch out wider, where an I-Shaped person will primarily go deeper and deeper.

I like how David Armano relates T-Shaped people to being passionate about different things (basically a primary or core passion and many ancillary ones). I laughed when I read this because one of my favorite questions to ask people is "What are you passionate about?". I like passionate people, especially people who are passionate about programming. Kathy Sierra has said that "People aren't passionate about things they suck at". It's a fairly accurate truism, especially for people who have been doing something for a while.

I've been programming since I was a kid. I love being in-the-code, in-flow -- that state where all the pieces are in your head and everything makes sense and the code just rolls out. I love solving interesting problems, finding clean solutions and building useful things that help people do what they need to do and I don't think I could be happy in a job that took me away from that. That is my primary passion.

And then there are my ancillary passions...

  • I've put a lot of thought and study into development methodologies, team dynamics, and people management, but I can't believe I would be happy in any sort of management only role -- too many head aches and no coding. (I have been fortunate enough to have worked under two excellent managers who took the heat, dealt with the headaches and fought for the team so the team could get the job done. To Robert Killory and Miles Andrews, a profound thanks.)
  • I had my hands in configuration management for a while. It made me a zealot for source control and for easily deployable applications and I gained a real appreciation for people who can thrive in that role but my time was split between coding and config management and the time that I was away from coding became a painful distraction.
  • I love improving business processes (bad processes are a serious pet-peeve) but I'd go nuts as a business analyst -- too much documentation, too little creativity and no coding.
  • I have strong feelings about well designed databases and I love tweaking the last bit of efficiency out of complicated stored procedures, but I wouldn't want to be a DBA -- too much tedium, too little creativity.
  • I love user interface design and focusing on user experience and usability, but I need to have my hands in the guts of the application at least some of the time or I get restless.

So that's me... I can't stand being pulled away from code for long, but I love doing different things and having input on a lot of different aspect of a project. That, as I understand it, is a T-Shaped profile.

I don't think it's better to be T-shaped than to be a more traditional I-shaped specialist and I suspect having all T-shaped people might have its own hazards, but I do think having a few T-shaped people on any team helps the team dynamics. T-shaped people can bridge opinions between people of differing view points or find gaps where only one view point is being considered.

That's one of the key things that T-shaped people bring to a team: an ability to see many perspectives. Another thing that I think that they bring is the flexibility to temporarily fill gaps within the team and to take on new skill-sets quickly.

It's funny, but on those personality/learning/communications assessments that companies give out from time to time I tend to score fairly evenly across all the areas, leaning just a bit toward the logical/analysis aspects... I wonder if that is common among programmers who consider themselves T-shaped people. Also how many T-shaped people are bloggers? Is any correlation between the two?

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2 - What do you think?:

ingrid said...


What articles did you read inorder to find definitions for Tshaped people and so..

Hoping for an answer!
Regards Ingrid

DH said...

Well if you're looking for a history of the phrase, Paul McFedries over on the Word Spy blog gives references going back to 1995. I think I first ran across the term listing to a podcast from some conference or another. When I Googled the phrase I found an article on David Armano's blog, which is the link that I referenced, as well as, a Fast Company article, but other than that there wasn't a lot of information out there at the time. Now a quick Google search turns up a lot more. Just make sure to avoid the Business Week article that talks about I-shaped people and ignores all previous definitions for that term.