Even more on generalist software engineering

There is a difference between a generalist software engineer, and a polyglot programmer. What is that difference, and why did I smoosh the two together in yesterday’s post?

A polyglot programmer is a programmer who can use, or maybe has used, multiple programming languages. That doesn’t mean that they have relevant experience or skills in any other part of software engineering. They might, and so might a monoglot programmer. But (in a work context) they’re working as a programmer and paid for doing the programming.

A generalist software engineer has knowledge and experience relevant to the rest of the software engineering endeavour. Not just the things that programmers need to know beyond the programming, but the whole practice.

In my experience, a generalist software engineer is usually also a polyglot programmer, for a couple of reasons.

  • to get enough experience at all the bits of software engineering, the generalist’s career has probably survived multiple programming language hype cycles.
  • in getting that experience, they have probably had to work with different languages in different contexts: whatever their software products are made out of; scripts for deployment and operations; plugins for various tools; changes to existing components.

More importantly, the programming part of the process is a small (crucial, admittedly, small nonetheless) intersection with the generalist’s work. Knowing all of the gotchas of any one language is something they can ask the specialists about. Fred Brooks would have had a Chief Programmer who knew what the team was trying to do, and a language lawyer who specialised in the tricks of the programming language.

Probably the closest thing that many organisations know how to pay for to the generalist software engineer in modern times is the “agile consultant”. I don’t think it’s strictly a fair comparison. Strictly speaking, an agile consultant is something like a process expert, systems analyst, or cybernetician. They understand how the various parts of the software engineering endeavour affect each other, and can help a team to improve its overall effectiveness by knowing which part needs to change and how.

And, because they use the word agile in their title, they do this with an air of team empowerment and focus on delivery.

Knowing how the threat model impacts on automated testing enables process improvement, but does not necessarily make a software engineering generalist. An actually-general generalist could perhaps also do the threat modelling and create the automated tests. To avoid drawing distinctions between genuine and inauthentic inhabitants of Scotland let’s say that a generalist can work in ‘several’ parts of the software engineering field.

We come back to the problem described in yesterday’s post, but without yesterday’s programming-centric perspective. A manager knows that they need a security person and a test automation person, but does not necessarily know how to deal with a security-and-test-automation-and-maybe-other-things person.

This topic of moving from a narrow focus on programming to a broader understanding of software engineering is the subject of my newsletter: please consider signing up if this topic interests you.

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1 Response to Even more on generalist software engineering

  1. Matthew says:

    We call the role a sysadmin, or did before the developers insisted on Helping.

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