Specialization Is For Insects

Original formulation and comments moved to SpecializationIsForInsectsDiscussion.
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, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. - RobertHeinlein, writing specialist

I personally, in my life, have changed a diaper, planned an invasion (Civilization, anyone?), butchered a rabbit, designed (and built) a (primitive) building, written a sonnet, balanced my accounts, built a wall, comforted the dying (poorly, probably), taken orders, given orders, cooperated, acted alone, solved equations (outside of math classes, even), analyzed a (lot of) new problems, pitched manure, programmed a computer, cooked a tasty meal, fought efficiently, and died gallantly (in Sca fencing, anyway). And I could conn some ships in an emergency, I'm sure. I'm still a specialist in programming. RAH was saying that humans should not specialize like insects, i.e., incapable of doing anything outside of their specialty. -- JeffBay

In Ancient Greece only the wealthy elite were permitted to become 'Generalists' and keeping the dumb populace as 'Specialists' ensured that they did not evolve enough personally to work out how society was organised or how the world works. Socrates remarked on how only the Philosophers could escape the cycle of birth and death once they leave this life. Only the wealthy, elite, generalists were able to become the philosophers. The poor, dumbed down masses were doomed to specialism and accordingly a limited level of development which would keep them earthbound for many, many reincarnations.

Seems not very much has altered in the interim.


Um, writing specialist? RAH was also sailor, aviator, engineer, politician, miner, agent, physicist, realtor, inventor, ... he only started writing in his thirties.

While I agree that 'writing specialist' is a bit harsh (albeit amusing)... Heinlein was neither a physicist, nor an engineer. I can't speak to the accuracy of the other claims.

Why do you say he was neither a physicist nor an engineer? I ask because of what I read at http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A650369

The page says RAH spent five years doing graduate work in physics. Maybe some people don't necessarily think that makes you a physicist. He also spent years in naval engineering departments working on, among other things, pressure suits. Maybe that doesn't make him an engineer either. The notion that he was only a writing specialist, however, does seem inaccurate.

Also from the web page mentioned above: Heinlein had published more than 60 novels, countless short stories, won four Hugo Awards, and had been the guest of honor at the World Science Fiction Convention three times. How does this compare with his record outside his alleged non-specialty of writing? While history is not always right, I expect history will remember RAH as a writer. (Not exactly a writing specialist.)

Isn't writing part of doing graduate work in physics, let alone being a politician, agent, or inventor? (Note that the page above records his activities in politics as 'attempts to find careers'.)

Hypothesis: Heinlein was only a writer. Counterexample: he did this laundry list of other things. What's the point we're trying to make?

I will make a point here. Notice how he did all those things in the early part of his life as "attempts to find careers". That sounds like what a StemCell? does before it becomes a DevelopedCell? aka a useful cell aka a specalized cell. The term "jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none" exists for a reason. GeneralizationIsForStemCells?.
While I do not know the details of him being a physicist, I absolutely know that RAH was an Engineer. He went to school for it and was a Naval Engineer. He wore many hats Author was just one of them. To me he wasn't just an Author he was also the subject matter he wrote about. His books are so good because he tells it like it is, at least as far as he's been educated or thought about it. He was interested in space travel, therefore he wrote about possible ways one might make it to the moon. He told it scientifically, but kept it interesting. His engineering knowledge absolutely helped him in his writing career. Because he was paid to write (Actually I've never heard of an Author who didn't first write and then find someone to pay him. His post humus book For Us The Living was a testament to an Authors continual rejections.) doesn't make him any less of an Engineer.

Theory: Heinlein was one of the greatest authors and people to have ever graced our planet. He has been probably my greatest Teacher.

-- FidelAndrade
This quote of RAH (by way of Lazarus Long) has long been an inspiration to me. Like a lot of quotes from literature, you should be careful of taking it too literally.
A programmer should be able to find a bug, market an application, refactor a spike, lead a team, architect an application, hack a kernel, schedule a project, build a database, route a network, give a reference, implement UserStories, analyze UserStories, work in a team, work alone, use patterns, innovate, write documentation, have a RealLife, create a cool website, email efficiently, resign gracefully, AdmitIgnorance, and keep on learning. Specialization is for recruiters. -- with large apology to RAH and his estate, PeterMerel

Let's not forget that the character LazarusLong, into whose memoir RAH places these comments is a fictional immortal genius. That's fictional. Lazarus can do all these things (and more) because he has lived for millennia and has his memory edited now and again, so that only the useful bits get left in. He's also got a lot of oddities in his physical make-up (unusually fast, but controlled, responses; total recall, no foreskin, etc.)

Humbug. Heinlein's list above isn't even particularly ambitious.

(Humbug indeed! Reading this book and others, it is pretty clear that Heinlein is not singing the praises of specialists, short- or long-lived, fictional or actual. Specialization/generalization is like many things in that you can have too much or too little. -- DavidVincent)

[I would add to that comment: Purest Of BullShit?. Heinlein's list is not only ambitious, it is downright impossible for most of those living in the 21st century. I would like to see the AnonymousCoward who made the comment above list his accomplishments next to Heinlein's list. -- MartySchrader]

And he has unlimited resources to back up his adventures, such as a time-travelling rescue squad. I don't know about you, dear reader, but I can't afford to make the kind of mistakes that Lazarus runs the risk of in my one short life. -- KeithBraithwaite

Let's also remember that the time-travelling rescue squad really only got in on the act after 2300 years of doing it himself. Or at least so it seems. This particular conundrum is the source of the practical joke RAH plays on the reader at the end of "The Cat Who Walked Through Walls"

The notebooks, though, speak more about what humans are capable of doing rather than what they ought to do. I take "should be able to" in this light. It may be a lot more efficient and sensible to pay an expert; in a pinch, though, you should be able to do it yourself; a basic competence can save you. And you shouldn't disregard someone else's ability to do it given an opportunity. -- PM

Interesting. I've never got round to TCWWTW, since RAH seemed to have lost the plot round about "The Number Of The Beast" and descended too far into his own navel for my taste (and I'm not sure I'd have wanted to know the man personally, or let him into my house). Anyway, the point stands: Lazarus and his opinions come from a universe of human experience and possibility very different from the one I currently live in, I think.

It's that a human being should be able to do all these things, not that someone in a population of humans should. That's the bit I find difficult. -- KB

Agreed that RAH lost the plot in #beast. But his subsequent books make up for it, especially "Job". TCWWTW is more a gigantic practical joke on the reader than a book per se.

Thinking about it again, the statement seems meant in the sense of literacy. Sort of like "should be able to read, write, and do 'rithmetic" for anyone who wants to live long. The analogy for programmers is asking a lot. Question is, how long do you want to be programming?
Oddly enough, "have a baby" isn't on the list...

That really is odd considering RAH's many transgender stories. Then again LazarusLong apologizes in a couple of spots for antique chauvinisms, so perhaps this was just staying in character. But it's worth noting also that RAH himself recorded no biological children ...

Silly, men can't have babies! :-) That honor is reserved for women.
Not sure if this belongs here or on JustaProgrammer...

There's an interview with Larry Constantine at http://www.uidesign.net/2000/interviews/larry1.html

...Cooper wants to wrest control over user interface design from the developers, whom he likens to inmates who have been allowed to run the asylum. To him, user interface design belongs in the capable hands of elite experts -- like himself, no doubt.

In contrast, we are trying to equip developers with conceptual tools that will help them make better design decisions themselves and enable them to become better collaborators in the usability process. In many real applications, the user interface is so complex and involves so many elements that a complete design down to the last and lowest detail is just not possible to fix in advance. There will always be issues that arise on the fly and decisions that must be made within the implementation context. There are also not enough trained user interface designers around, and few companies can afford to assign one or more to every project. In the final analysis, usability is everyone's job, so it makes more sense to prepare everyone to do their part in the usability process. -- LarryConstantine

I think the fundamental message behind SpecializationIsForInsects is that elitism doesn't make as much sense as "enabling ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results". This seems to be another justification for the message in SpecializationInXp. -- JasonYip
A group of generalists behaves like an organic system: resilient but not efficient.

An organization of specialists behaves like a mechanism: efficient but not resilient.

-- Julian Morrison
moved here from ChiefArchitect

I have a proverb: Whoever knows enough to find a problem knows enough to design the solution.

See above. To me, this is a dangerous oversimplification and tends to homogenize the development process. It implies that there are no differences between the roles of Analyst, Designer, and Programmer. It seems to imply that if you do one you should be doing all three... that it is somehow not enough to be very good at interfacing with customers and analyzing the problem domain enough to find the perfect problem domain requirements. You must also be a good enough designer to model the solutions to these problems you've found. It also bums me out to think that someone who isn't great at design but is a kick ass implementor is somehow flawed. Why? Why should they care about high-level design? Isn't it okay to simply enjoy implementation? -- RobertDiFalco

What if their was a flaw in the design? Checks and balances are a good thing otherwise the implementer might as well be a machine doing nothing more than a compiler.

To me, it's wrong for an even simpler reason. There are many people who think that they have found problems that either aren't problems, or (even worse) are carefully thought-out tradeoffs. When they are also given the freedom to design solutions to these problems, disaster is around the corner. At the very least, before trying to solve a problem, you need to make all relevant StakeHolders aware of what you plan to do to them! -- BenTilly

Or for an even simpler reason: knowing that something does not work, does not imply that you have enough knowledge and skill to design something that DOES work to replace it. Example: TodoComments.
Implementors are not flawed but they're not going to be working unless they are in a country with very depressed wages, like India, Mexico, or China. Anything that is well known enough to be reduced to implementation skills is going to be shipped to the third world either already or soon.

I allowed myself to be specialized into C++ programming and only in PKI systems for the last 5 years. I did a lot of analysis and design too, but the usefulness of that is beyond HR departments, they just want to see knowledge and years experience in dozens of buzz word skills.

Skills you won't have enough knowledge of to claim experience with if you allowed yourself to be specialized. It seems to me that the real problem here is if you have an MS and you picked a specialty that market forces haven't rendered useless. specialization may do ok for you, but otherwise you are going to be rendered unhirable in due time by the very aggressive technology churn.

This is really about survival, and adaptability is a better bet for the individual even if in the "ideal team" it would be worse. -- PeterDoak

JoelSpolsky thinks specialization is inevitable. See http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/LordPalmerston.html
The RenaissanceMan? idea of knowing how to do many things hardly claims that you have to be expert in all the areas. Only so that you are able to do a thing that can be called that.

One can often see that learning a new skill and especially practising an unrelated skill somehow seems to improve the others. Considering that the world works by analogies, this doesn't seem anyhow surprising.

Hmm. I don't know about that. My specialization is in engineering; like my company tagline says, I fit solutions to systems. Other things I can do: repair and ride a mountain bicycle, repair and shoot a gun, build and fly a rocket, use a sword (or any number of other hand weapons), build and race model radio control and slot cars, kick serious ass in computer-based real time strategy games, create art in a small handful of media, write music, chew gum, shuffle my feet, twiddle my thumbs. Like any other human being I am capable of carrying out a great number of functions, but I specialize in the one thing in which I am outstanding: engineering.

Note that I do not claim real proficiency in the tasks I list above. I merely mention that I can do these things. That's great, but I need to stick to the one thing I'm good at to be most effective. There are also things I am lousy at: woodworking, plumbing, lawn and garden maintenance, picture hanging, painting (of any kind), brain surgery. If I need some of these operations performed in and around my house or business I am likely to call in an expert. Why do I need to expand my skill set to include specialties I have already shown a lack of talent for? Let me do what I do best, dabble in what I like but lack talent for, and completely ignore that which I suck at. -- MartySchrader

That which you dislike or "suck at" may be important for your development as a human being. One of the arguments behind SpecializationIsForInsects is that we can become better humans by increasingly broadening our skillset. How do you know that you wouldn't be a better person if you were more broadly skilled?

As you have defined better as someone having broader skillsets, then your reasoning is circular. A better human in my mind has nothing to do with what skills you have.
To me, it's wrong for an even simpler reason. There are many people who think that they have found problems that either aren't problems, or (even worse) are carefully thought-out tradeoffs. When they are also given the freedom to design solutions to these problems, disaster is around the corner. At the very least, before trying to solve a problem, you need to make all relevant StakeHolders aware of what you plan to do to them! -- BenTilly

What scares me is people with a solution looking for a problem. --BenAveling

Wait a second, here -- does anybody remember back in the early 1970s when microprocessors were first being produced cheaply? The 8008, etc., were often billed as "the universal solution looking for a problem." This has proven to be true. I remember electronic equipment that had discrete logic devices like the old 7400 TTL and CD4000 series CMOS. All that stuff was eventually supplanted by microprocessors of one type or another. I even did a gig where they made paper shredders using the MC6800. It was cheaper to design the electronics using a micro, a current sensor, and a couple of triacs than to use timer relays and all that trash.

My point is that there is a place for generalization and a place for specialization. I have always been a generalist in electronics engineering, never sticking to one particular field long enough to get pigeonholed there. (Not even medical diagnostics and treatment.) However, in the larger field of engineering I am an embedded systems developer, a specialized field if there ever was one. This is neither good nor bad; it simply is. I can accept that even if people like those who created this page can't. Hmph. <sniffs, hitches up pants> -- MartySchrader
This footnote describing AntoineLavoisier, from Oliver Sack's Uncle Tungsten, reminds me of the Heinlein quote above.

In his biography of Lavoisier, Douglas McKie includes an exhaustive list of Lavoisier's scientific activities which paints a vivid picture of his times, no less than his own remarkable range of mind: "Lavoisier took part," McKie writes,

in the preparation of reports on the water supply of Paris, prisons, mesmerism, the adulteration of cider, the site of the public abattoirs, the newly-invented "aerostatic machines of Montgolfier" (balloons), bleaching, tables of specific gravity, hydrometers, the theory of colors, lamps, meteorites, smokeless grates, tapestry making, the engraving of coats-of-arms, paper, fossils, an invalid chair, a water-driven bellows, tartar, sulfur springs, the cultivation of cabbage and rape seed and the oils extracted thence, a tobacco grater, the working of coal mines, white soap, the decomposition of nitre, the manufacture of starch...the storage of fresh water on ships, fixed air, a reported occurrence of oil in spring water...the removal of oil and grease from silks and woollens, the preparation of nitrous ether by distillation, ethers, a reverberatory hearth, a new ink and inkpot to which it was only necessary to add water in order to maintain the supply of ink...,the estimation of alkali in mineral waters, a powder magazine for the Paris Arsenal, the mineralogy of the Pyrenees, wheat and flour, cesspools and the air arising from them, the alleged occurrence of gold in the ashes of plants, the winding of silk, the solution of tin used in dyeing, volcanoes, putrefaction, fire-extinguishing liquids, alloys, the rusting of iron, a proposal to use "inflammable air" in a public fireworks display (this at the request of the police), coal measures, dephlogistical marine acid, lamp wicks, the natural history of Corsica, the mephitis of the Paris wells, the alleged solution of gold in nitric acid, the hygrometric properties of soda, the iron and salt works of the Pyrenees, argentiferous lead mines, a new kind of barrel, the manufacture of plate glass, fuels, the conversion of peat into charcoal, the construction of corn mills, the manufacture of sugar, the extraordinary effects of a thunder bolt, the retting of flax, the mineral deposits of France, plated cooking vessels, the formation of water, the coinage, barometers, the respiration of insects, the nutrition of vegetables, and many other subjects, far too many to be described here, even in the briefest terms.

A human being should be able to [... long list of items ...], die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. -- RAH

It has been my honor to have known people whose list of talents/achievements/skills rivals the original list; not the least of these was my own mother. A selected subset of her talents includes nursing, art (painting & drawing) in several media, music (composition & performance) for several instruments, singing, songwriting, poetry, dancing, public speaking, writing, carpentry, masonry, navigation, boating, fishing, hunting, "processing" game, cooking, gardening, farming, housekeeping, child rearing (diapers included), financial management, counseling, organizational administration, and other stuff I probably never knew about.

She wasn't big on the martial disciplines, but would have been ready to take them on, given necessity. And it wasn't just that she could do these things, she could do them competently.

I lament that my life is so much more specialized than hers. My father's list overlapped hers, but his included the martial stuff, along with electronics, technical writing, higher math, engineering, wood carving, and automotive skills. Oh, and this doesn't even encompass the breadth of his learning in classical subjects.

We had books everywhere. If they needed to do something they didn't already know, they got the book, studied the subject, practiced until they could do it, and carried on.

My own mistake, and the reason my list is so much shorter than either of theirs, is that I limited myself from cowardice and lack of vision. I was very slow in learning that my career is not my life (a CareerIsNotLife?) and that security entrusted to others is entirely an illusion.

I've done the insect thing and it pretty much sucks. -- GarryHamilton (amen)

Just a note: How does this say that being an expert is a bad thing? I am a programmer, an expert at the aspects of the Java programming language I code in the most. I can cook a tasty meal, I've helped people build a wall, solved simple equations and much more. "Specialization is for insects" doesn't say we shouldn't be experts, it just says that we shouldn't limit ourselves to our field. -- AnonymousCoward
I feel as though this is an adequate justification for being bisexual in today's hypersexual world -- JadenBane?
False dichotomy.

You have to specialize enough to get specialist jobs, or you're going to qualify as unskilled labor.

But when your specialty disappears you're going to qualify as unskilled labor anyway.

So a human being should be able to support his family as a waiter, support his family on minimum wage, support his family on unemployment, get on welfare, panhandle, join the military, be an extra in a movie, work on straight commission, work for tips, collect aluminum cans, scavenge food, negotiate with landlords, kill rats, cook a tasty meal on WIK maintaining strict cleanliness in a heavily roach-infested building, survive a mugging, sell a drug, kite a check, survive prison, survive without health insurance, treat a scabies infection, ... die gallantly.

Lazarus Long made a big point of noticing when a society was going downhill and getting out in time. No doubt if he was in the USA today he'd be looking into doing subsistence farming in Brazil. But it isn't so easy for mortals. If the society collapses and essential services are cut off, something over 95% of us will die. But if you spend too much of your resources preparing to be one of the <5% that survive, it gives you less time to specialize in case the society doesn't collapse and you're more likely to spend your retirement eating dogfood on straight social security. Should you give up your job that pays specialist wages today and emigrate to Brazil? A hard choice. But if you wait until you're on unemployment, the move will be even harder.

The central point of all this isn't to not specialize. It's to not live in a society that's about to fall apart. When there are more skilled jobs than people to fill them, you'll have no trouble getting a new specialty when the current one evaporates. But when there are more smart people looking for skilled jobs than jobs for them to fill, then you need to be lucky whether you specialize or not.
I've had the unique (among people in the IT community at any rate) opportunity to be both a user/consumer of software purpose designed and built, as well as a developer of said software (don't want to get into a big exposition - enough to say I've worn many hats in my line of work). This experience has given me an appreciation for good and bad development, implementation and deployment - what works and what doesn't. Some things I've learned: a centralized IT department that develops for the 'least common denominator' will not support anyone's needs effectively. Waterfall development processes/lifecycle models are alive and well - unfortunately 90% of the time they are inappropriate (and a major source of project failures). Architects, Developers, and sometimes Deployers (network and system admin resources) do not understand scalability and will either over estimate (wasting resources) or worse, underestimate causing outages when the first rush of traffic hits their application/servers. I've lost count of the number of times I have raised the red flag on these kinds of issues - only to be discounted by 'specialists', with detrimental effects. I told you so has a hollow ring to it after awhile. I have also made mistakes - the most egregious being missing the real needs of the end users in the rush to produce something - anything.

From this experience I would argue that specialization is too prevalent. There needs to be a balance of more people who can tie all the pieces together - good at knowing the right things, the things that really matter when it comes to design, implementation, deployment and maintenance - to such an extent that they can see the forest without losing sight of the trees. In my experience people who can do this are few and far between. I have the hubris to count myself among them - if imperfectly. - AnonymousCoward
The important thing to realize that each and every one of us has achieved nowhere near our potential. If you can still learn new knowledge and gain new abilities, then you should devote time to do so.

On the subway I once heard two ladies talking about how they had to get some guy friend to come in to help them put together a bed. Their reasoning is "if I had to put together the bed it would've taken me five hours, but he does it in one hour! He's an engineer after all!" That's not true, his "specialization label" is not the reason for his competence. Your lack of practice is the reason for your incompetence. It may be understandable if the task we're talking about is some structural analysis of some suspension bridge, but we're really talking about putting together a bed.

I take it you're not familiar with Ikea furniture "kits". While possible to figure the diagram out if you stare at them and the parts enough, experience with how bad technical writers write does help.

[Don't underestimate your own limitations and inabilities. Myself and others have no difficulty assembling Ikea furniture, even in the absence of any instructions. Perhaps you're simply not very good at stuff. Some people aren't, and have difficulty with almost everything. Others are good at almost everything; they are particularly the sort for whom SpecializationIsForInsects.]
Oh how true! I can do everything on Heinlein's list except write a sonnet. This is because I'm 46 years old and I've always had a go at everything before I asked for help. I admit that it is pure luck that I have survived as long as I have - for example, riding a large motorcycle without any instruction whatsoever nearly killed me (I'm a rather good rider now) - but I have the ability to survive under nearly any circumstances, and I can get a job anywhere doing nearly anything. (I am currently head of research and development for a medium sized company and I mostly do glue code for systems integration). I am not significantly different from other people except in this one thing: when I needed to put together a bed, I just did it.
Volatility Trade-off

Specialization tends to pay more, but also puts one at greater risk of obsolescence. A multi-hatter has a wider variety of experience and skills on which to rely on when the marketplace changes. For example, Oracle specialists are paid well in general, but if Oracle started fading in popularity due to a new database paradigm, then an Oracle specialist may struggle in the market-place if they have to leave a position. They'd be competing against a flood of other newly-released fellow ex-Oracites. Companies are somewhat resistant to hire older workers for new technologies because the stereotype is that younger workers pick up new skills faster. Thus, transition will be difficult for most.

Thus the decision is similar to an investment portfolio: higher risk (volatility) equates with higher average returns.

Yes, I can vouch for this. I personally epitomize the Jack of all trades, and master of few. My list which to spare you form details I choose to omit is pretty impressive. But this does have a trade of in my personal finances department. Because its very had to justify a superior starting salary with my skill set. Tough I do tend to generate new kinds of specialist areas over time. Unfortunately i suffer from what my wife calls a Da Vinci syndrome. So once I get there I consider the problem solved and soon loose focus. Leaving my employee a specialist short in a specialist area that has no established specialists.

Further, if you are doing well in a very specialized position, save some money for a rainy day.
From Heinlein down, this is among the silliest discussions I have ever read.

Well, thanks, but how exactly does that observation help to improve the discussion? What is it that is so objectionable? Can you identify the point of departure from the germane into the blue-sky? Otherwise, your statement helps us not the least bit.

I'd say it's the use of insects as punching bags. While Heinlein's taglein(sic) has pithy resonance, many insect species are remarkable generalists; the life career of any particular weaver ant, for example, may span four to six different "fields".

The only things I can do on that list are balance accounts, act alone, solve equations, analyze new problems, and program a computer.

I'm an excellent programmer, at everything from VHDL to PHP. At 24 I'm the lead programmer for a company, and I also do math and design circuits in CAD. Beyond that I never do much of anything, because I'm afraid of failure. I just do the same few things that I'm great at everyday. The result is that I'm as specialized as an insect. Outside of my three tricks I don't know and can't do anything.

This list and the other comments make me think I've wasted a lot of my life. Fear of failure made me decide not to take salsa lessons with a friend. I'd really like to meet a girl, and that's a great place to do it. But I'm a lousy dancer, so I decided not to go, and now I'm still single and still can't dance. Any time I try new things I think that if I fail I'll humiliate myself, lose confidence, and have a permanent failure on my record for the rest of my life. Now there's practically nothing on my record. Maybe its not too late at 24...might be worth reading Heinlein's Time Enough for Love.
Lets see:

I should add This makes 5x a real no. So I'm not a generalist but no specialist either. A good compromise in our society I guess.

See: JustaProgrammer, HumbleInsect

CategoryRant, CategoryProblemSolvingStrategy, CategoryEmployment

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