On interviewing and generalist software engineers

After publishing podcast Episode 53: Specialism versus generality, Alan Francis raised a good point:

This could be very timely as I ponder my life as a generalist who has struggled when asked to fit in a neat box career wise.


I had a note about hiring in my outline for the episode, and for some reason didn’t record a segment on it. As it came up, I’ll revisit that point.

It’s much easier to get a job as a specialist software engineer than as a generalist. I don’t think that’s because more people need specialists than need generalists, though I do think that people need more specialists than they need generalists.

For a start, it’s a lot easier to construct an interview for a specialist. Have you got any experience with this specialism? What have you done with it? Do you know the answers to these in-group trick questions?

Generalists won’t do well at that kind of question. Why bother remembering the answer to a trick question about some specific technology, when you know how to research trick answers about many technologies? But the interviewer hears “doesn’t even know the first trick answer” and wonders how do I know you can deliver a single pint of software on our stack if you can’t answer a question set by a junior our-stack-ist?

If you want to hire a generalist software engineer…ah. Yes. I think that maybe some people don’t want to, whether or not they know what the generalist would do. They seem to think it’s a “plural specialist”, and that a generalist would know all the trick questions from multiple specialisms.

This is the same thinking that yields “a senior developer is like a junior developer but faster”; it is born of trying to apply Taylorian management science to knowledge work: a junior Typescript programmer can sling a bushel of Typescript in a day. Therefore a senior Typescript programmer can sling ten gallons, and a generalist programmer can sling one peck of Typescript, two of Swift, and one of Ruby in the same time.

I think that the hiring managers who count contributions by the bushel are the ones who see software engineering as a solitary activity. “The frontend folks aren’t keeping pace with the backend folks, so let’s add another frontend dev and we’ll have four issues in progress instead of three.” I have written about the flawed logic behind one person per task before.

A generalist may be of the “I have solved problems using computers before, and can use computers to solve your problem” kind, in which case I might set aside an hour to pair with them on solving a problem. It would be interesting to learn both how they solve it and how they communicate and collaborate while doing so.

Or they may be of the “I will take everybody on the team out to lunch, then the team will become better” kind. In which case I would invite them to guest-facilitate a team ceremony, be it an architecture discussion, a retrospective, or something else, and see how they uncover problems and enable solutions.

In each case the key is the collaboration. A software engineering generalist might understand and get involved with the whole process using multiple technologies, but that does not mean that they do all of the work in isolation themselves. You don’t replace your whole team, but you do (hopefully) improve the cohesiveness of the whole team’s activity.

Of course, a generalist shouldn’t worry about trying to get hired despite having to sneak past the flawed reasoning of the bushel of trick questions interview. They should recognise that the flawed reasoning means that they won’t work well with that particular manager, and look elsewhere.

About Graham

I make it faster and easier for you to create high-quality code.
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3 Responses to On interviewing and generalist software engineers

  1. Pingback: Even more on generalist software engineering | Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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  3. Pingback: Generalist Software Engineering | ZX81.org.uk

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