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Are You Pi Shaped?

Level 8

We’re well into 2015. How is your year going - and how are you preparing for the rest of your career?  Earlier this year, four of us got together and had a great talk about technology predictions for 2015.

One of the things I talked about was becoming a “Pi-shaped expert.” You might ask, “What’s a pi-shaped expert?” Well, it’s all about how you develop your skills and your career. If you read advice on skills and jobs, you will often see advice on being a “T-shaped expert.”

One of the things we struggle with in IT is in being a generalist vs. being a specialist. There are lots of ways of looking at this: Kong Yang has written on Geek Speak about Generalists, Versatilists, and Specialists, which is a different window into this same issue. But sticking with our letter-shaped model, let's define the T-shaped expert. This kind of person has a broad range of skills which they’re reasonably familiar with; that’s the top of the “T”. Maybe for you it's Windows, networking, security, being really good at writing requirements documents, scripting, and Exchange. And then the T-shaped expert also has the stem of the “T”—the one skill area in which they're an expert. Maybe for you it's VMware and virtualization).

The T-shape is what gets you the good job. Generalists are where we all start, but generalists in IT tend to get stuck in smaller shops doing everything and are often underpaid and overworked. More advanced jobs and bigger environments require—and pay for—experts in a given area, but who can pinch hit in other roles.

So being a T-shaped expert is the best way to get a good job, move to a better situation, and have a good career. At least for a while. If you became the SAN expert or the VMware expert ten years ago, you have done well in the ensuing decade. But if you’re *still* the SAN expert or the VMware expert ten years later, and that’s all you are bringing to the table, you should be a little concerned. The SAN of 2015 is a lot easier to manage, and in many emerging environments in the cloud or with hyperconverged infrastructure, there’s not even a SAN to manage. Your T-shaped skill simply isn’t as valuable.

PI Shaped Expert.png

This is where the Pi-shape comes in. While you are still working in that T-shaped job with your T-shaped pay, you need to be building new interests and new skills. You should be using small projects at work as well as side projects outside work to develop another leg on your “T,” making it a “Pi.”

That new skill in 2015 might be something like automation and orchestration, configuration management, DevOps, or containers. Or perhaps it’s expertise in hyperconverged infrastructure, software-defined networking, or public cloud. Or it could be going deeper into application performance management and relating back to DevOps and Continuous Integration. It should be something that you find interesting and something that is becoming increasingly relevant now and growing in the future. As you develop this second leg of your “Pi,” you open up new opportunities in the future.

IT is about continuous learning. Don’t get stuck being a generalist. But also don’t get stuck with one deep skill that’s stuck in past. You probably have decades more left in your career. Always be stepping to a new stone in the river by becoming a Pi-shaped expert.

22 Comments
Level 17

Grand Analogy! The projects and opportunities we have inside and out of our regular 9 to 5 give us the platform to grow legs. I see a centipede in the end with many legs of ability and skill that help grow oneself as an asset or a franchise player to be sought after.

MVP
MVP

Interesting.  I like they way you put it together and like cahunt‌ says, I see a centipede or millipede construct in the end as you grow and add the different segments of your career.

Level 15

I like the thought patterns in this post.  I am thinking about my career and various types of advice over the decades that I have been in IT and I do not think that I have ever been able to see the clarity of the "Pi" shape.  However, I too agree that as time continues forward that we should first become bugs (One body and pairs of legs) and then continue to add additional legs.  Keeping our Generalist level equal but as time and opportunity arise to add expert skills along the way.

I will admit that career development has been one of the skills that I have not spent a lot of thought and effort on as usually I have been too busy focusing on the break/fix or what project is at hand.  But now, I am thinking more like the prairie dogs.

Level 13

jtroyer - the pi shape is so apropos. The IT Generalist does need another IT leg to stand on. Your pi-shaped IT pro is what I've been calling a versatilist (a Gartner term originating in the mid-2000s) - aka an IT pro who is a specialist (technically adept & deep) in more than one tech domain. Great read!

Level 8

Versatilist seems daunting, like Jack of All Trades. I liked the "one new skill at a time" metaphor instead. Love the centipede metaphor from cahunt -- remember our careers are decades and decades. You always need a new leg! Even if you're "the storage expert", storage in 2035 will not be anything like 2015!

A lot of business books get written about "learning organizations" and other fuzzy stuff. But for techies, I think it comes down always be working on a side project or tinkering with something new.

jtroyer‌ Great post!

I find I'm often at odds with this concept. What "should" I be working on versus what "the industry" says I should be working on versus what do "I" actually want to be working on or becoming better at.

Sometimes keeping the lights on is all some of us can do but building that additional "pillar" of skill should always be present in our mindset.

This topic would probably segue nicely into a broad poll for the community of what everyone is driving towards!

Level 13

Great point jtroyer‌. Many of our thwack community members have made similar feedback about it being associated with Jack-of-All trades master of none (this is what an IT generalist is in fact), when a versatilist actually is defined as master of many. Whatever one calls it, IT pros need to continue to evolve - even at the scale of one skill at a time.  

MVP
MVP

I like this description
I used to describe myself as a specific generalist.

Meaning that rather than being "master of none", there was a while bunch of "certified on u,v,w,x,y,z"

Level 13

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Level 13

That's a great analogy, and is something I'm working on now.

You might say that pi-shaped experts are... well rounded.

Level 14

I am planning to spend a lot of time this year learning scripting... mostly, to use with the Orion SDK.  I am far from a programmer, so this seems like a great thing to start with.

Level 10

Great article. Very thought provoking.

I like to think of my career diagram as a "Caterpillar" with ever expanding legs.

PI.png

Level 13

I like that, although comparing oneself to a bug might not be the best approach in an IT interview!

Level 12

Did someone say Pi?  Yum, Apple please!

Level 15

And the reason for the color changes.  I was thinking about your diagram and my listing of skill sets and thought, I wonder what my diagram would look like, so I was curious about the colors?

Level 10

Moving more towards management from tech.

Level 13

I'm not pi-shaped. I'm kind of roundish, while pi r squared.

Level 14

Good article.  And like others have said, I definitely agree with the caterpillar. 

Level 9

You are my hero for the day! That was awesome!

Level 12

I too agree that as time continues forward that we should first become bugs (One body and pairs of legs

MVP
MVP

Nice analogy, I like the addition of the "Next"

Level 7

Great analogy.  Always learning and advancing.  You are either moving forward or backward, standing still doesn't happen.