Are you a generalist or specialist?

There was an article in the Ganssle newsletter a while back about the increasing trend towards engineers becoming specialists in one area as opposed to generalists.

I'm a self-confessed generalist, ie Jack of all trades and master of none and I usually do all the design work from concept through schematic and PCB design to writing the embedded code and even the Windows GUI if required. Plus I do plumbing, welding, mechanics, house design etc etc.

I will never be an expert in say the intricacies of RTOS design or be good enough to weld on a gas pipeline but that's the way I like it, so when the Ganssle newsletter published this quote (Apparently from one of Robert Heinlein's books) I had to share.

"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, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

I like to think I can (or could if required) do all the above, with the exception of changing diapers.

What are people here, generalists or specialists?


die gallantly

That's a Hollywood mime. What does that mean exactly for all the non combat forms of deaths, that will happen to probably 99.99+ % of us.

That aside I did read a lot of Robert Heinlein books as a youth. I just never tried to live my life by any book prescription.


Yes I wasn't too keen on that one, and as you say what about us non-heroes. Personally I think something like dealing with cancer for 2 years with a brave face takes as much fortitude as most of the classic "brave" acts. Probably more actually because there's not the heat of the moment and the adrenalin to pump you up, you just have to deal with it.

Fortunately I'm well out of my depth with such a discussion as I've not had to deal with either scenario.


Generalist through and through. I've always loved that quotation, which is "from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long" in Heinlein's Time Enough For Love. In fact I was just thinking about it the other day, and wondering if I could get or make a copy of it to hang on my office wall. Good book, I should read it again, it's been a long time.

I always liked the definition I was given by my high school calculus teacher!

A specialist learns more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. A generalist learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.


Wonderful quotes both,

I am definately a generalist,

I have 2 big projects on the go in the office ( which the wife calls the lounge )

and one being assembled in the laboratory ( which the wife calls her sewing room ),

I have the washing machine in bits in the kitchen, trying to get the main bearing out , working through a small hole in the back cover ( I did assist in the delivery of my daughter 40 years ago, and it all comes back, like riding a bike )

I have the ignition switch hanging from the dashboard of the car in the garage.

I have the scribblings of my new invention ( a new type of fly trap ) in the drawing room ( which the wife calls the bathroom )

Its 5 am and I am catching up on Bar Sport with a cup of coffee ( the only non decaffed one for the day - hmm - I think that is a double negative ) before getting stuck in.

As for the die gallantly quote, I hope I am never in a situation where I have to dive in front of a train to throw a toddler out of harms way, for instance.

Who knows how natures fight-or-flight toggle would behave without having been there ?

Re the cancer , very true, we lost a very gallant sister to cancer last year..

:), to all except your sister of course.


In my skull, where there is much of nothing, except for a little bit of 'Dark Matter' at its central core, a to-do come wish list wafts from side to side, right behind my eyeballs, where I can see and read it.

From time to time the list gets sucked into that central dark matter where it gets acquainted for a while with the up tight specialist left brain, before not long after, being torn away by the lazy right brain half. They each fight like hell to be top dog in wanting the list to be their own.

In the meantime with that commotion in the background, I myself sit in the middle, or should I say, on the outside. I observe and then I try to do the best I can.

Mostly I'm buggered each time, as everything needs to be so damn perfect that not much gets done, and in the end and what does get done is so far from left brain perfectionism. I try to console myself that what I do get done is at least an achievement, a step toward my goals and values in life.

Like many of you, I also favour;

  • being able to weld with one hand while testing out my culinary skills on the other,
  • have chainsaw abilities, while soldering smd components after lunch,
  • being able to get thick black with grease, while keyboard manicured after dinner,
  • having mindless force to dig fence holes with a large iron bar, while having some wit to write with a pen,
  • ability to slurp a can of beer on the left, while sipping red wine with grace on the right,
  • go dizzy at the sight of blood any day, while happy at pulling your own child out at birth on one day,
  • wanting to stay home all day on the left, while madly excited and ready to explore the planet on the right.

As a child, my parents were horrified each time I would pull apart a new toy! The toy was more fun apart than whole for me. I wanted to explore how it worked. Putting it back together was never a problem.


Way to go Paul ! :slight_smile:

My but you have a busy head Paul, mine's largely vacant.

I too have a problem with perfection, meaning that I like everything to be perfect in a design so the end result is (for personal work at least) that I almost never finish anything because I can always make it better, or maybe next week there'll be this great chip that makes the design just right.

Contract work is different, there's a deadline and the job just gets done by then...well sometimes.

Putting it back together was never a problem.

Same here, the fun part was gone at that point so I never bothered and moved on.


Generally I'm a specialist

Rob wrote: My but you have a busy head Paul, mine's largely vacant

Might sound like it's busy, yes it is sometimes, but largely it's background noise that I just ignore. Living in the bush is nice and peaceful, I guess you like that too Rob eh? On a warm summers eve I can stare at the stars and planets and other strange objects out there and then realise, well, not much at all, how vacant is that :P

Thanks for your nice words Boffin, looks like a large glass of beer you are holding, or is that Cognac?

Isn't the bar here is a nice place to hang out at the moment :D


That glass Paul, is a Hartenberg white wine from Stellenbosch just up the road from here.

I have switched to red a year or so back, I must change the picture, but it reminds of a lovely afternoon under the trees with a picnic....

Dammit, back to the washing machine and LED displays, it was nice to dream for a second ...................

Contract work is different, there’s a deadline and the job just gets done by then…well sometimes.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
– Douglas Adams

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Not to mention the Splat as they smash into the wall behind

My dear friends - Generalist like the rest of you. Except Arduino where I strive to be .... well, maybe I'll stick to generalist ;)

But a techno-generalist. I cant write a sonnet, play improvised music or be a politician.

Know your limits. No need to push them, but improve inside of them (assuming they're far enough apart ;) )

(ohh, that was way to much philosophy for this eveing. Time to go to bd)

I seem to be a generalist in such a small area that people think I'm a specialist. For instance, I really enjoy comparing different microcontrollers. Which qualifies me to ... um... participate in many heated online discussions, or to be a troll...

I seem to be a generalist in such a small area that people think I'm a specialist.



generalist, though I am not an engineer

the engineers at my work do have their specialist qualifications and trades, but take on generalist attitudes, they have to we are a small company. We cant afford to stock specialist in every possible situation, and frankly from what I have seen I am not too impressed by career specialist that greatly steps outside their favorite field.

yea they can solve a specific problem, but only in an ivory tower situation which is rarely useful in the real world other than a nudge in the correct direction.

Msquare: Know your limits. No need to push them

the only way I can learn is to push or be pushed beyond my limits. you can drill it in my head all day and not make a dent, toss me in the deep end and I finally get it

guess I am thick headed