The rise of the t-shaped engineer

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The notion of a t-shaped developer or t-shaped engineer is becoming more popular in IT companies of all sizes, and the likelihood is that you have come across this term before. But what exactly is a t-shaped engineer? Are you already one? And if not, how can you become a t-shaped engineer? Let’s find out.

First though, a quick note on the use of ‘developer’ vs ‘engineer’: While many in the industry will argue for clear distinctions, the two terms are often employed interchangeably and their use is often influenced simply by which side of the Atlantic you live on or personal preference. Author Gabriel Negreanu prefers ‘engineer’, so that is the term you will find throughout this piece.

A bit of history to begin

Traditionally, companies favoured I-shaped engineers. These were individuals specialised in a single field with little to no knowledge of other stages in the software development life-cycle (SDLC). They had an in-depth understanding of their core area and were very good at their specific job. In fact, everyone in an organisation had very clearly defined roles and generally only interacted with other specialisms at specific stages of a project.

by @DavidMM

But this structure, neat and tidy though it was, had a disadvantage. The grey areas outside one’s core remit would often be contested by several individuals or teams; or sometimes be void of any one person claiming responsibility. And having many individuals with core competencies but no understanding of each other’s work also resulted in miscommunication and misunderstandings. Overall, this set-up created a lot of workflow inefficiencies which resulted in project mismanagement and lost revenue.

Enter the t-shaped engineer

In response to perceived shortcomings of the old model, companies began to revise the scope of engineer positions. By broadening the skill set of the traditional engineer, the ‘I’ came to resemble a ‘T’. T-shaped engineers, then, are still highly skilled in their core field but also have a good working knowledge of other related subjects. As a T-shaped engineer you have a particular specialisation but can also work with others in your team across the SDLC because you speak their language - and they yours. Continuous education and growth are key to this concept.

by @DavidMM

It is true that t-shaped engineers are not always as strong in their field as their I-shaped counterparts because they do not have the same level of focus on the core aspects of their work. But the benefit to the team and the project generally outweighs this slight lack of specialisation because collaboration and product quality are much improved by this.

Benefits of the t-shaped engineer model

There are many benefits to becoming a multi-skilled engineer:

  • Be a better rounded developer: T-shaped engineers have a speciality, normally front-end, back-end, DevOps, or even a technology stack such as the MERN/MEAN/MEVN stack. But they also are comfortable doing other jobs outside their scope.
  • Take on more responsibility: A t-shaped engineer can contribute to every part of a project. That can mean a smaller team where each member has more responsibility, as they respond to a wider range of skill requirements.
  • Better understand other developers: Knowledge of other engineers’ tasks means you know how to ask for what you need, understand the challenges of their tasks and know what to expect from them.
  • Cover other developers: What happens if the back-end engineer goes on holiday or is sick? Or any other team member for that matter. T-shaped engineers are able to fill in the gaps and keep projects running on time.
  • Improve your employability: An open-minded developer who enjoys learning new things is a valuable asset to employers.

How to become a t-shaped engineer

There is no silver bullet or quick fix to becoming a multi-skilled developer, but a few practices will set you on the right path:

  • Learn things outside your area of expertise:  Learn the basics of other areas. This allows you to grow and expand your skill set in different areas while keeping a specialisation.
  • Take your time: Being t-shaped is not an easy task that can be achieved in a weekend with an Udemy course. It takes time. Years. Keep an open mind and expand your knowledge at every opportunity. Keep growing.
  • Empathy: Understand that other people are outside their comfort zone, and have patience. To speed up learning among team members you need to create a safe and collaborative environment where knowledge can flow freely.

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