Specialists and Generalists

Specialists and Generalists
Credit: NoName_13

Disclaimer: Whilst I can easily categorise myself as a generalist, my familiarity of some the industry leaders within the various fields of Information Security prevents me from considering myself a true specialist of any subset of knowledge. How could any modern-day painter rank himself at the same level of a Picaso or Da Vinci?

Most definitions of generalist and specialist often include some reference to the medical profession because its a perfect fit.

Generalist: "a person with a broad general knowledge, especially one with more than superficial knowledge in several areas and the ability to combine ideas from diverse fields".

As the name implies, your general practitioner (GP) is the generalist of the medical field. He may not always be able to assist you with treatment of your illness, but he should have sufficient knowledge (across the various fields of medical knowledge) to be able to perform some diagnosis of your issue and advise you which type of specialist doctor to visit for further treatment.

Specialist: "a person highly skilled in a specific and restricted field".

However, looking outside of the medical profession, the majority of people would simply define a generalist as "one whose skills, interests, or habits are varied or unspecialised" with the keyword being unspecialised.

This opinion is further supported by figures of speech like Jack of all trades, master of none.

Within Information Technology specifically, the concept of categorising an individual as either a generalist or a specialist simply proves that we (at bare minimum) fail to understand the complexity within our own industry.

How do you honestly define an infrastructure specialist?

  • Does the person need to have perfect knowledge of Windows, Linux or both?
  • Wouldn't infrastructure knowledge, to some extent, also include common stack-related services such as web servers and databases?
  • If so, then how would you expect the knowledge of an infrastructure specialist to compare to that of a dedicated database specialist?

With so many unknowns within our 'definition' of the position alone, how could one even begin to compare the knowledge/ability of one "infrastructure specialist" with another?

In a follow-up post, I'll explain how our misuse of the 'specialist' and 'generalist' terms, specifically within Information Security, often provides us with a simple recipe for disaster.