Tag Archives: career

Generalist Software Engineering

I greatly enjoyed Graham Lee’s series of posts about specialisation versus generalisation in software engineering1, quite possibly because it’s me.

My background is a little different from Lee’s, though, so I thought it was worth sharing.

I have a two tier experience2. With a few minor blips, Unix has been a constant technology underpinning since my first year at university. I started using Linux around the time 1.0 was released. I got a Mac when — or possibly before — OS X was ready for mainstream use because it was Unix with a nice UI. At work I’ve seen the change from big Solaris and HP-UX machines, to Linux, to containerised applications (which are normally based on minimal Linux distributions). Sure, the different Unix variants are not exactly the same, but most of them have something bash-like and ls does the same thing everywhere, even if the more esoteric options vary.

I should say that this is largely a preference. I don’t like Windows but that’s not an objective criticism. I do joke about it from time to time3 and I do admit the limits on my knowledge, but I don’t refuse to work with it!

Sadly, being a long-time Unix user is not a career.

I started my career at a “pure” consulting company. Each client I worked with wanted to do something different and I ended up using varied technology stacks. This was great from a “generalist” point of view. I flitted from Uniface to PL/SQL to Perl to Oracle Applications4, but beyond abstract concepts like “problem solving” I didn’t get anything like a transferable skill. The obvious path would have been management but that wasn’t where I wanted to go. I saw friends and colleagues specialising, and earning considerably more money for the privilege.

I appreciate that I’m likely leaving money on the table, but I stumbled on a solution that works for me: being part of the field engineering team of software vendors.

Being in the field team means that I work directly with customers and they end up wanting to do all kinds of things. In a year I can work with dozens of use cases, satisfying my need for novelty. At an end-user, I’d be looking at a small number of use cases the whole time.

At the same time, there is also a degree of specialisation. By working with the same product all the time, I can become The Expert in it and some adjacent technologies. For example, I’m pretty good with Kubernetes and Java these days. I need to write code and sketch out software architectures. My knowledge has to be deep enough to demonstrate credibility but I don’t have to build production code. Additionally, I can bring domain expertise. I wouldn’t sell myself purely on my banking knowledge, but it’s a nice value add.

This may not be the solution for you. There may even be better options for me that I’ve not found yet! But I thought it was worth documenting my experience, since most of the articles I’ve seen are for more traditional “software engineering” or management roles. Other positions are out there if you know where to look.


  1. Though I wasn’t able to write anything about it in a timely manner! ↩︎
  2. Maybe second tier too, but in this case I mean there are at least two layers. ↩︎
  3. There’s a Dilbert cartoon I use occasionally. This from before Adams went off the rails. ↩︎
  4. Whether you’d want to make a career out of any of those technologies is a different story. ↩︎

What to do?

There have been a few blogs recently about people finding their true vocation and discovering that it’s not developing software. This is not a “me too” post. I do still develop software for a living and I don’t intend becoming a writer or anything else any time soon. But like most people (I assume) my career has taken turns that I never would have imagined when I started out.

In fact when I was at school I took quite some time trying very hard not to be a software developer for a living. I took geography rather than the rather more obvious (if you know me) chemistry because I wanted to be a pilot. I was so determined to keep programming computers as a hobby that I almost took woodwork instead of computer studies when I was fourteen.

Even when I went to university a few years later I tried (and failed) to read maths. After graduating with a Computer Science degree I fell into a job in software in many ways because I wasn’t sure what else to do.

If this sounds negative it’s because that’s what I was thinking at the time. With hindsight I’m glad that all the effort I spent avoiding my current career didn’t pay off.

The job I took turned out to be a lucky break in some respects. It was at a medium sized consulting company which allowed me to work in lots of different positions on lots of different projects in a relatively short period of time. The effect of this was that I was able to mentally break up the job “Software Developer” into aspects that previously I would have conflated.

What I learned is that I enjoy creating stuff more than managing people. That I’m better at sketching designs on a white-board than I am at testing the resulting code. That I like to make things that are useful rather than just architecturally beautiful. And that I like working with end users, even when they ask for the impossible or contradictory things. (Okay, not exactly at the time they request it but you get the idea.)

In practice this means that I seek out roles that are broader than a stereotypical developer1 and certainly require more than just coding. Hard-core developers may sneer at the fact that the most common job title I’ve had over the years is some variation on “Consultant” but I actually quite like that it means very little. Under the same title I’ve done everything from development to pre-sales consulting to business analysis.

The point, of course, is not that this is The Right career, only that considering “development” as a single activity wasn’t a helpful way of thinking about what I wanted to do. By breaking down the role into its constituent parts I’ve been able to get a balance of variety and control that I’m happy with most of the time.

Put another way, I’ve been functionally decomposing my career and optimising it for years. I guess I really am a developer at heart.

  1. I think it’s fair to say that the responsibilities of a “developer” vary more from job to job than that of, say, “accountant.” []

My delicious.com bookmarks for October 20th through October 24th

  • Deliberately uninformed, relentlessly so [a rant] – "Many people in the United States purchase one or fewer books every year. Many of those people have seen every single episode of American Idol. There is clearly a correlation here." Wholeheartedly agree with this post. Not knowing stuff is fine. Being proud of not knowing stuff? Not so much.
  • Twitter Can Predict the Stock Market – "Mao compared the national mood to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. She found that one emotion, calmness, lined up surprisingly well with the rises and falls of the stock market — but three or four days in advance."