This blog post originally appeared on the 8th Light Blog.
Jack of all trades, master of none
The above is a well-known saying that people tend to use when referring to polymaths or generalists. It’s often said in jest, though the underlying assumption is a bit more bleak. This is especially true if you notice its usage in other languages:
Many talents is no talent
Rather ominous right?
If you’re a generalist, do not despair. In this blog post I will make the case that the nature of generalists is a blessing in disguise, and that in reality they are true masters of one specific and very important skill: problem solving.
A few months ago I attended a workshop by Dan North on delivering quality software faster. During the workshop, Dan asked the following question: “Is code a liability or an asset?”. He asked us where we stood on the matter, quite literally, on a scale of “all code is a liability” to “all code is an asset”. In the end he said “All code is liability”. Inevitably, someone posed the question “What about my job?” to which Dan responded: “Your job is not to write code. Your job is to solve problems. You are a problem solver.”
As consultants at 8th Light, we encounter this scenario very frequently. Switching projects often means having to learn new tools and new domains. The ability to dissect a problem and quickly get unstuck—regardless of the technology—is crucial. We are generalists by nature.
With this in mind, what are some techniques that generalists possess and employ that makes them great problem solvers?
The smaller the problem the easier it is to tackle
When dealing with the unknown, few things if any can magnify the issue as much as scope. The more information you’re trying to keep together in your head, the bigger the challenge. Size can be your friend or your worst enemy.
This first step in this process is to dissect a bigger problem into smaller problems which can be focussed on individually. Let’s look at the following example:
“Build a command line app in Go that takes command line arguments and prints them back to the console.”
Let’s also assume you’ve never worked with Go or at least have done very little. Here are some of the problems we are faced with:
- Learning Go
- Building an executable in Go
- Printing to the console in Go
- Passing command line arguments to a Go executable
- Parsing command line arguments in Go
Initially this might have seemed like a big task, but breaking it down helps you see the smaller pieces to which you can focus on one thing at a time. You can literally google each of one those lines and they will give you results that more or less give you the answers you’re looking for.
The first thing in our list is “Learning Go”. This on face-value seems like a very big and broad challenge. Where do you start? What should you master first? How many things do you need to learn?
These are all valid questions but they won’t help you. The question that will help you the most is the following:
What can I safely ignore for now?
This is very important. It’s simply another mechanism for reducing scope. You don’t need to master every aspect of Go to build an executable or print to the console. You need to learn just enough to complete the task at hand.
Knowing how to search for things is an art in itself. When searching you want to make it easy for the search engine to find things for you whilst also making the process efficient for you. Compare the following two search strings:
show me how to build a Go executable
build go executable
Both will produce more or less the same results though one requires fewer keystrokes. The amount of keystrokes you save is not really the main goal here. The goal is to train yourself in breaking a problem down to its essence. This not only helps you when searching for things but also when you are building something since it can help you identify sub-problems.
When dealing with the unknown you are almost certainly going to face errors. Some may be easy, others not so easy. They can also be very demoralising. I faced, and face many errors and challenges every day. What has helped me persevere over the years is the following belief:
Every error is the result of some action somewhere and is probably solvable
As part of this belief, I developed an intuition when it comes to searching for information that can help me solve the problem. The below diagram is an attempt to make this intuition more concrete:
If you internalise the above, then any problem is solvable. When you believe that and follow a similar approach, then the real question is whether the thing you are trying to solve is worth your time.
A key element of the flow described above are short feedback loops. Whether you’re trying to print a string on the console, debug an error, or anything else, you want to make sure that you have a short feedback loop in place. What does that mean? It means receiving feedback from your actions as quickly as possible.
Minimise the distance between your action (input) and the outcome (output)
A good example of a short feedback loop mechanism is a repl. You type some input, press enter, and you get immediate output (feedback) back. In our Go example, the reason why the second step in the process is building the executable is because that will give you a very fast feedback loop when trying to fill in the rest. You start with printing a
hello world, and then you move toward parsing arguments. For both of these you have an extremely fast feedback loop with
Another mechanism is TDD and unit tests. If you don’t know where to start, traditional print statements can also provide you with extremely fast feedback—though you need to be extra meticulous in the sense that you have to place them strategically in your code. Add too many and you get information overload. Too little and you’re not getting enough information. Even the order in which you add or remove them makes a difference.
Let’s take an example. You are faced with the following problem: your code is returning an error, you don’t have tests and you’re not sure where to start. The first step is to establish which code path is exercised, i.e “Ah, it’s class A, method-B which calls method-C from class D and its own private method-E.”. Then you proceed with narrowing down the scope:
If all of the above fails, sometimes the best course of action is to throw something away and start fresh. It’s much easier to keep going down the rabbit hole once you’re in it than it is to take a step back. If you’re using Git, you can exit the rabbit hole with a
git reset. This will give you the time to reset mentally and approach the problem with a fresh perspective.
I hope this blog post left you with some techniques to improve your own problem-solving ability. I equally hope that if you’re a generalist, I’ve given you a different perspective from which to view yourself and others; one which makes you feel proud. We can also change the original quote ever so slightly so that it makes people more curious and allows you to expose your greatest skill:
Jack of All Trades, Master of One.