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the generalist and the specialist

I went to Groningen recently to visit, and had a meeting with someone that I used to work with in the nineties.  His name is Maarten – he’s a real bright guy, and he, like I, make websites.  He heads a team of programmers and designers in a newly renovated building called “The Paleis”.   He is the specialist, in contrast to me, the generalist.

I mention the building because I have had the opportunity to go there in the past on a service call in the nineties, and now through adaptive reuse, it has become an interesting building once again.  The building was, in the nineties, a laboratory.  Now, it houses a 3D fabrication lab, a graphic design studio, a web programming business, a hotel, lecture halls and meeting rooms, a bar-lounge, and a couple of apartments.

The specialist

My friend is an expert in web development.  He is now working on websites with customized twitter applications.  He has been working as an html programmer in the nineties, to PHP, MySQL, and other such development technologies.  He understands that he works a a part of a value chain that ads the design and visual elements later, by another specialist.  The websites are for larger organizations that can afford to pay for a several person team of web developers/designers.  This is how modern sophisticated websites are made.

Contrast that with the method that I often use when making websites.  In may cases, I am working with someone with no or little prior skill in any internet oriented business, website, social media, or such internet communication method.  Since they are usually beginning from the beginning as far as the internet is concerned, they basically need to go from zero to working.  Thus, I have to create the entire value chain myself.  This means I have to wear both the web developer and web designer hats.  I have to do the entire process from concept design, to visual design, to graphics creation, to web development, to website design.  I also have to do all of this for an affordable price.  Once they are working in a reasonable way on the internet, they can go to the next step, where they pay substantially more for a specialized website.

He says that he could never do this and that he is satisfied with where he is and how he works.  He would rather traverse the alphabet soup of programming languages, rather than start from the beginning, and learn about visual design, color, and composition.  His situation is actually typical of the entire industry:  there tend to be two camps, those with lots of technical expertise, but little visual design, and visa versa (those with lots of visual design experience, but sparse technical knowledge).

The generalist

I am fortunate enough to have carefully developed both of these capabilities throughout both my academic career, and my work world.  I have seen myself as a generalist for as long as I can remember – carefully balancing out my interests both technical and artistic.  My parents were artists and scientists, therefore balance was more assessable to me at a early age.

So, my manner of working is to see all of it as a gestalt.  Then, isolating its elements, I work on it piece by piece, until I finish it.  This does not mean that I am the greatest artist, or the most proficient technical mind – but I am good enough.  I am good enough to go from nothing, to something that looks good and works.  Good enough to: launch a startup, erect a web-store, create and promote an event, create a new product, produce a new business, etc.  For situations good enough to bring in a specialist.  Being a generalist (also called a hybrid designer/developer) in this  business is not easy and is a rare discipline – one that one has to intentionally work for by learning all the critical specialties – both visual and programming related.  It takes longer to develop skills in all critical parts of a value chain, but it pays dividends in product creation, management skills, and client services.

 

Why?

Importantly, most of my clients don’t have time to develop web skills.  They are too busy developing their careers or products.  It takes a lot of time to develop the skills of a martial artist, or musician, or philosopher, designer, interm-management expert, or any number of other diverse skills and vocations that my clients possess.  They need someone that can get them a web domain, a professional identity, logo, and website. They need these things, and they need them at a price that gives them a chance to survive in the market.  I can provide these things in one business.

When you can play all phases of a game, you tend to win more often.

As for the Paleis, Check out their one year anniversary festival.  There will be an open house on September 19th, 2010.  The fabrication lab will be open, an there will be events and demos.  See the Het Paleis website.  And, if you’re looking for a specialist that’s a web generalist, contact me at charlesconsult.com and tell me what you need.

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