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Women in Tech: Are you a generalist or specialist?

January 17th, 2022

6 min read

Generalist and specialist represented by two stacks of folders, with a central mug stating the two skill groups.

Written by

Julia Dikevich


The Tiny Way

You’ve probably heard of it… the 10,000-hour rule. The idea was promoted in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, where it’s said that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice makes you an expert. But contrary research supports the view that “generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel.” So, which is it? I’m not sure, but that explains me… a generalist. And it’s the exact reason I love my work as a designer at Tiny.

When this article came up, I thought hard about the message it should convey. Was tech a big part of how I’d got here… or a stepping stone in my career? The latter seemed to be my answer, considering the winding path I’d taken to Tiny. Luckily, Tiny embraced the diversity of my experience and recognised that my skills had been strengthened, not weakened, by different perspectives. 

In David Epstein’s book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, he proposes that you should "Approach your own personal voyage and projects like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, willing to learn and adjust." 

On reading that passage, I realized I’d not planned my career path. Instead, it had opened in front me as I progressively learned, grew and adjusted, and finally became the designer I’d always dreamed of being. Similarly, the tech industry has changed over the last two decades. But while I’d grown into my role as a designer, the tech industry had stretched itself across our lives and become a can’t-be-without aspect of almost every waking hour of our days.

The stretch of tech

To get where it is, the industry had to broaden its focus and add to its talent pool – drawing in generalists like myself – to help remove the silos, break the exclusivity and open their eyes to the things people want from their digital experiences.

In his book, Epstein goes on to say that “Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see. [...] As experts silo themselves further while computers master more of the skills once reserved for highly focused humans, people who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives will increasingly thrive.”

That’s my approach to design in the tech industry… amalgamating different perspectives, so my work reflects a ‘thinking designer’, who appeals to people’s heads and hearts. How have I done that? By adopting, adapting and adding four perspectives from my life, into the story of being a woman in tech.

Perspective one – build empathy

My pathway to design didn't start in the usual places of either design or art school. Instead, the unlikeliest of places – a clothing store in Moscow – was where it began. Looking back it’s astonishing how the simple act of helping customers select dresses they loved, taught me to spot the differences and commonalities between people. 

Most importantly, it highlighted to me that people really can’t resist you, when you take the time to politely listen, understand and empathize with their situation. It’s almost magical.

This same skill now helps me deal with Tiny’s design challenges and the day-to-day communication in a multicultural company. Now deemed to be a so-called ‘soft’ skill, being empathetic helps me to collaborate and get the best out of difficult situations. Who knew that my part-time job as a student would play a big part in my future professional life?

Perspective two – recognise differences

My first serious role in a global company was as a Digital Producer at Nickelodeon. Working there taught me how to handle international projects, communicate with different stakeholders, and adapt global initiatives to the local market. 

That first taste of global, corporate life showed me how widely people’s needs differ. By learning to understand and apply those differences, it helped me to build experiences, services and products that were more closely attuned to people’s needs, lives and aspirations. As a designer, this discovery was a goldmine!

Working in a global company like Tiny, I need to problem-solve from multiple perspectives – not just within my own specialized domain as a designer, but also as a team member who’s contributing to the achievement of our revenue goals. That's where my diverse experiences come into their own, by helping me see more broadly and being more accepting of change.

Perspective three – transfer knowledge

Then along came Setka. This is where I jumped head-first into the excitement of working at a start-up and truly entered my now much loved, design world. Even though design was always with me – I’d drawn pictures when studying at University – I was finally working on digital publications, landing pages and websites that placed me exactly where (in hindsight) I was always meant to be.

Epstein has another useful thought that encapsulates my time at Setka, “Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. Our most fundamental thought processes have changed to accommodate increasing complexity and the need to derive new patterns rather than rely only on familiar ones.”

Remember those other perspectives and experiences that I’d collected? They now added their power into the equation of my work, in a role where I needed to open my mind to a new world of possible solutions for the content creation problems we were solving.

Perspective four – remix to reinvent

Setka eventually led me to Tiny, where I’m remixing my experiences and perspectives, every day. That’s helped me realize that great designs aren't about pretty pictures. They require deep thought and consideration of who’s reading, what they’re feeling, how they're thinking, what their needs are and the problems they’re trying to solve. 

If you boil it all down, design is 50% hard skill and 50% soft skill. Yes, the technically ‘hard’ aspects must be mastered, but you also need to be able to place yourself in other people’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. As the great Swiss painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) said, “One eye sees, the other feels.” 

Which brings us to Tiny, where I’m happily a woman in tech. It also brings me back to that specialized vs generalized debate we started in the beginning.

Specialized, generalized or both? 

It’s true, the tech world does seem specialized. It appears that every startup founder and their team knows from the get-go that they want to be in tech.  But not me. I'm here to contribute what I've learned and the experiences I’ve had to this exciting, ever-changing sphere.  

If nothing else, the last two years of COVID-19 have taught us that life operates in the "wicked" domain, where rules are many, goals change fast, and there’s no longer a simple measure of progress. In those types of complex environments, the brains who’ve been trained to deal with a lot of different situations – yes, generalists like me – perform a lot better. 

Why? Because our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It’s the ability to think, feel and integrate on a broad, global scale.

Women in TechDesign
byJulia Dikevich

Designer at TinyMCE, skilled in User Interface Design, Web Design, and User Experience.

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