Look at your industry’s state and then decide if you want to become an expert

The t-shaped engineer is a human centipede. These modern software engineers are different than traditional experts. Which one is better? And what have foxes to do with it?

focus photography of brown fox
Photo by Unsplash

The hedgehog and the fox

In the original essay “The hedgehog and the fox” by Isaiah Berlin, “the author compares two different thinkers.

Hedgehogs know one big thing very well. They have one view of the world. They are reluctant to admit error. A failed prediction is almost always off only on timing or nearly right. They are opinionated and straightforward.

Foxes are complex thinkers. There is no single big driver in human history. Reality emerges from the interaction of many agents and forces, including luck. While they do not possess a magical crystal ball, they are slightly better at predicting events.

The software specialist

There are usually many technologies if you work on a medium to a large software project. Some of these technologies are so complex that it takes several years to achieve mastery. An expert in this field has put in 10000 hours.

These experts often have issues dealing with problems that touch the periphery of their knowledge. They are not used to make predictions based on best guesses.

They have seen many applications, and they assume that are only a few right ways to apply their technology. Such behavior makes them like hedgehogs. They are clear in their prescription of a solution that requires implementation. If surprisingly, the solution fails, they will declare that it has almost worked and only a minor technical fault needs fixing in the future.

The T-Shaped engineer

We all only have a certain amount of time in our life. In addition, we should not spend more than 40 to 60 hours a week on our work life.

However, the way we spend these hours is up to everyone on his own. You can decide to learn a lot about the hot technologies in embedded software, internet software, aerospace, or automotive. You can be knowledgeable in many of the applied technologies in your industry.

Similar to the expert, you will also spend 10000 hours.

You will always have an opinion on every technology, yet you often fail to explain how something works completely. You will never be the expert. You are like the fox.

Advantage of the foxes

Problems usually arise on the borders of domains. Many new technologies are created by applying two old technologies.

The amount of uncertainty in these problems makes initial failure very likely.
Enter the fox. His knowledge in all related domains puts him in the best seat to spot potential failures early.

Should we all become foxes? I am not sure. Ultimately the fox requires the advice of several hedgehogs. Without the hedgehogs, the fox will identify the problem but could fail to find a solution.

When to be a fox

My suggestion: treat the issue as a question of the maturity level in your field.

  • When you are new in the field, be a fox.
  • When the field is stable, be a hedgehog.
  • When the field declines, be a fox to find new adjacent areas that offer innovative solutions.

I am off to the fox den.