Specialist vs. Generalist: Who Wins?

By Alyssa Gregory
We teamed up with SiteGround
To bring you the latest from the web and tried-and-true hosting, recommended for designers and developers. SitePoint Readers Get Up To 65% OFF Now

specialist vs generalistMany fields with a great amount of depth, like web design and development, have a split of service providers. Some offer specialized services while others focus on a more general area. Having done both myself, I think there are merits (and detriments) to each, although I certainly have my own opinion about what works best! But before we get into that, let’s take a look at the match up.

The Specialist

The specialist may have purposefully chosen their area of specialty, or they could have bumped into it one day and it stuck. Either way, they have great depth of experience in one specific area. They focus all of their effort, including skill development, on that one specialty. Some pros of being a specialist include:

  • They are experts in their specialty.
  • They know the work inside and out, upside and down.
  • They may have an easier time selling their services once they find their market.
  • They can charge more.
  • Their work process is streamlined.

OK, flip it over. Some cons:

  • They have no “filler” services to pick up the slack when work slows.
  • Their market may be too narrow for consistent income.
  • They probably have to turn down or outsource a lot of work.
  • They limit their ability to expand their business.
  • They risk going out of business if their specialty becomes obsolete.

The Generalist

The generalist may consciously choose to offer a broad spectrum of services, or they may not have been able to develop expert-level skills in one specific area. Generalists may be very good at doing many things, but typically are not at the same expert level as specialists at any one service.

The pros:

  • They are able to market to a broader audience.
  • They have more services to offer current and past clients in order to generate additional work.
  • They can easily add, remove and update service offerings to match the market.
  • They have broad peripheral knowledge, which may be enough for some clients.
  • They can provide clients with alternatives if one solution is not a fit.

The cons:

  • They probably have to turn down or outsource specialized work.
  • They have more to juggle in terms of project management.
  • Their rates may be lower.

Specialist vs. generalist is like comparing the coffee selection at a warehouse club and then going to a gourmet coffee shop. One gives you a selection; you can make a choice and pick a coffee that’s within your budget. The other is only for the serious coffee drinkers who know what they want and are willing to pay a premium for it. The warehouse club has a lot more traffic and sales. The gourmet shop is a harder sell, but a bigger one.

There are advantages to being in both groups, but I think the only way to be truly successful is by being a little of both. You can be a specialist, but in order to be able to develop a profitable business (of course, depending on what your specialty is), you may need to be able to supplement your specialty services with some add-on services that may not be exactly in line with your focus. On the generalist side, you can’t just do everything mediocre. You can offer a lot of services, but you need to do all of them well and some of them perfectly. If you’re not at least doing them well, it may be time to consider not offering those services.

Anyway, that’s my take. What’s yours? Are you a generalist or a specialist? Or a mix of both?

Image credit: Lynne Lancaster

We teamed up with SiteGround
To bring you the latest from the web and tried-and-true hosting, recommended for designers and developers. SitePoint Readers Get Up To 65% OFF Now
  • Josh Maxwell

    Wouldn’t being a mix of both make you a generalist?

    I would consider myself a generalist if that’s the case: design is where my passion is, but I need to know the more difficult scripts.

    Currently learning VBScript, JavaScript, ASP, and PHP all at once. It’s quite a load!

    Thanks for the topic to consider,

  • John Roquemore

    When it comes to freelance, this is a really hard place to be. Ideally I would say specialist with a really solid community of other specialist who can sell together, which is basically a company.

    Right now I’m working on a way around this. Stay tuned… :D

  • Susan

    I’m a specialist with a broad range of axillary skills. Seems to be a blend that comes naturally after many years of contracting.

  • I agree, one needs to be a little of both. Personally, I would love to have more then one specialty.

  • doug-o

    As an old-school ‘Web Master’, circa 1993 , I get my fingers in everything but rarely truly ‘master’ anything. I’ve often thought about specializing in accessibility or security but I just never seem to have the time.

  • Khalid

    I am from Healthcare, but with interest in web development.

    Your view is very applicable to healthcare.

    In healthcare specialists that lose their generalist perspective of things fail to deliver proper care to their customers. They often fail to see things from different angles. They only see things from the angle of their specialty.

    I think you nailed it: be a generalist but have a specialty.

  • PCSpectra

    I would consider my specialization in application interface design, architecture and best practices. Rarely do I find work focused strictly on that, either as a project lead or consultant. Unless your Martin Fowler and recognized as an authority in that niche market, I dought business would be that great.

    I sell myself as a developer and mention security, architecture, interface, usability, standards, etc but they are certainly not my ‘be all end all’ sales pitch.

    It’s best to be a specialist and sell yourself as a generalist and simply have the professional contacts to carry out the rest. I occassionally contact guys who are skilled Linux gurus or security freaks, but my clients are none the wiser.

  • Jay R.

    I think that the coffee shop/warehouse metaphor is inaccurate at best, and at worst, insulting. The real comparison being made in that metaphor is quality, and you’re comparing the generalist to a lower-quality product.

    A generalist may charge lower rates, but they may also charge the same rate or higher, because they can accomplish more of any given task without extra assistance.

    A specialist is only necessary if the task at hand requires abnormally high-level skills.

  • They both win when project teams and clients realize that both perspectives have value and that a general perspective can have just as much value as a specialist perspective.
    We really should learn to not look at things as black & white. People are never black & white; we all have diverse backgrounds and I bet that every “specialist” out there has some “general” knowledge. If a video specialist doesn’t understand the idiosyncrasies of different browsers (or a heart surgeon understands patient care), which a generalist would most likely understand, then how does that benefit the team and client (or patient).

    A special-generalist is needed when a project needs very detailed information on a topic, whereas a general-specialist can be a great asset as well; someone who has general knowledge and can cover many aspects of the project, but who can, when needed and time allows for it, get a bit more detailed on a topic.

  • sbrowett

    Some days I’m a generalized specialist, and others I’m a specialized generalist…

    I ‘specialize’ in internet technologies, as opposed to creative and offline marketing, however the web is a specialist medium in which I generalize.

    I suppose it depends what I’m selling, and to whom, as to what skillset I will attempt to sell in to them.

  • sbrowett, you hit the nail on the head!

  • dev_cw

    I have two identities, one as a specialist and a second as a full service firm (generalist). My generalist business is well established and has a strong portfolio and client base. On the other hand my specialist business is only a few months old, has no public portfolio (due to NDAs), a simple one page site and limited client base. Ironically the specialized business is bringing in 3x more work than the generalized firm.

  • I would same I am a specialist in ActionScript and Flash technologies; and I am a generalist in PHP, XML, HTML, CSS, Regex, Javascript, Video Editing, Graphic Illustration/Design, and whatever else I can get my hands on.

  • Generalist is like a rebel with a machine gun, he just pulls the trigger and sprays.
    Specialists use one shot. He knows the WHATs, WHENs, WHYs and HOWs. He can take any Generalist out of the game with one shot.

    Generalists read books by Specialists in order to development projects. Specialists focus on something and are well experienced.

    Specialists know the key is harnessing the power of FOCUS. FOCUS leads to greatness. FOCUS is the only way to greatness.

    I’m a generalist. One day, when I choose front or back-end I will master my choice. Front-end after 8 years is getting old, back-end (4 years) is more fun.

    Generalist == blonde,
    Specialist == brunette

    Sure, they (the blondes) have more fun but you can pick up some NASTY habits that way ;)

  • JohnVbs

    I don’t think that you can be successful if you’re only a specialist or only a generalist, I think it’s best to be a mix of both; to have a general set of knowledge in a lot of different fields; but to have one area that you’re a specialist in.

    I’ve seen this idea represented as a “T” shape. The top of the T represents a breadth knowledge in a lot of different fields, (e.g. math, programming, server administration, graphic arts, management, etc..) while the vertical line in the T represents a depth of knowledge in one or two specific fields. The general knowledge gives you perspective on your specific field and also provides a starting point if you ever need to change your specialty.

  • Kiril Savino

    Frankly, “specialist” and “generalist” have to do with perception. An exceptionally talented person usually has deep valleys of knowledge combined with broad plateaus of familiarity, and depending on which subsection of their expertise they’re working in, they’re categorized as one or the other. I wouldn’t hire either, if they weren’t the other.

  • Krishna

    I consider myself a generalist though i agree it depends on the perception like Kiril said. But i personally find being a generalist helps you understand whats going around.