Jack of all trades, Master of one.

At a time in industry, when specialists are valued for the depth and focus of their skills, what does it mean to be someone who consciously shuns that route? Is there a way to achieve your goals by being a jack of all trades or a generalist, as they say?

I am a mechanical engineer by qualification, which means I studied a broader set of subjects than students in most engineering streams. While I didn’t enjoy every part of my studies, I was definitely molded by the breadth of the courses I pursued. It helped shape my thinking in ways that would help me solve multi-disciplinary problems. The basis in physics also helped me analyze situations from an elementary or first-principles perspective (which is a fashionably, albeit misguidedly, used term).

During my graduate studies, I realized that specialized study was not in my interest and that I was best suited for a career that required me to be competent in a variety of domains. Realizing this took time and came with the experience of being in a new culture and interacting with a variety of people from disparate backgrounds.

When it came time to start my career, I entered the job market. Soon, it became apparent that, for fresh graduates and people with limited work experience, the market is highly skewed towards specialized roles. This is especially true for someone with a Master’s in Engineering.

After stints in a couple of engineering firms working on design in the US, I returned to India still unsure of whether I was on the right path in my career. After a lot of struggle and soul-searching, I realized that roles in management were the best way for me to contribute to the kind of organizations I wanted to be a part of. In this journey, I have realized a few things that I believe can help other generalists out there.

  1. A lot of what you do at work in startups can be learnt on the job:

This is true especially for roles that require some experience. My colleagues in hiring and my network have repeatedly attested to this fact. This may not be the case for larger organizations where many management and middle-management roles are highly specialized. This is important, as I discuss in a later point, because it represents a smaller barrier to entry (for a certain kind of individual) to get into Startup organizations.

2. An MBA is a packaged degree and may be more valuable for its attribute-screening and peer-peer learning:

I believe that consideration for an MBA should happen after a significant stint in the industry. Learning all aspects of business when you no have experiences to tie them to, hurts retention and application. This may be dependent on your ability to visualize and project. But in most cases, starting your career in a fast-paced early-stage organization is far more valuable and less financially-straining than a top-tier MBA.

3. The attributes for most entry-level roles in Startups are more about attitude and less about your skills:

The industry is correcting for this by hiring more students from business and commerce backgrounds. Invariably though, a large proportion of the teams are engineering graduates. Even the majority of graduates who get hired in such organizations after MBAs are from engineering backgrounds. Therefore, it is pertinent to note that the intangibles, such as your work ethic, ownership, propensity for hard work, are far more important for entry-level roles than your hard skills.

4. Leveraging your Generalist disposition can lead to Growth

In smaller companies, it can be taken for granted that people fulfill multiple roles. They are also privy to workings of other team (in detail, if they’re interested). Using this to your advantage to get a full view of the business and identifying how it makes money, will help you decide how you want to be a part of that. It will also help understand which kinds of organizations attach greater value to your particular set of skills and experience. This will involve analyzing and understanding parts of the business which you may have no relation to. It will also involve understanding other companies in your domain and outside it.

I will conclude by saying that being a Generalist is not a guaranteed path to success. But it can be leveraged if you plan your career in a way that augments your attributes rather than stifling them. Thank you for reading this autobiographical attempt to provide insights.

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Keerthi Prithingar

Keerthi Prithingar

Product Manager at Hevo. I am a generalist and write about ideas that try to describe the world.