Matthew Miner

Specialization Is for Insects

Here’s a quote I ran across:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

— Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

I haven’t read the novel it’s from, and I question the need for invasion planning skills, but I like the sentiment that we should strive to acquire an array of competencies.

For my computer science degree I needed a number of non-CS, non-math credits to graduate. I had a wealth of options, from standard university fare to niche topics like international trade and East Asian studies. Among the electives I took were Film Noir, Moral Issues, Understanding Music, a religious studies course simply titled Evil, and Elements of Dance. That last course netted me the highest grade on my transcript. It was always a talking point in my co-op interviews.

I learned a ton from those classes. Though I value breadth of experience, I also recognize the validity of the critique in “jack of all trades, master of none”. Despite my GPA-inflating dance mark, I have yet to be invited to compete on Dancing with the Stars. Depth is important too.

Recently I heard the term “T-shaped person”. It describes someone with a broad skillset (the roof of the T), plus intimate knowledge of one subject (the stem). Many web developers I’ve worked with fit the bill, with an understanding of Git, Bash scripting, Docker, SQL, and a dozen other technologies, along with mastery of JavaScript and the DOM. It’s an ideal I strive for myself.

Game development especially benefits from T-shaped people. Building a game demands such a range of specialities — physics, lighting, audio, networking, the list goes on — that mastering them all would take multiple lifetimes. But having at least a basic understanding of each discipline involved is useful. Game engines like Unity and Unreal mercifully mean you don’t need to be an expert in 3D rendering to build a 3D game, but familiarity with algebra and concepts like quaternions doesn’t hurt.

The fusion of disciplines is one reason I enjoy film and games so much. The mix of competencies and interests, whether from a team or a single gifted polymath, makes each a unique experience. So cheers to all you Rennaissance Men and Rennaissance Women. Insects are gross.