When I was 17, I was told to figure out what I should study and do for the rest of my life. Obviously, I had no idea at the time, but having played around with game engines like Unity, I thought - why not try to become a games programmer? I ended up enrolling in University to become a games programmer, but ended up working in enterprise software development upon graduating- both are technical and challenging fields, but completely different in many ways. I wanted to share some of my personal opinions on specializing in software development and how to choose the right one for you!
Specialization, to me, is the acquisition of knowledge within a field that allows an individual to solve a specific set of problems that others in the same field might lack the knowledge to solve. In the field of software development, there are many ways that an individual can specialize and specialization to at least some degree is going to be inevitable - your skills are inevitably going to differ from others. It's important then to understand how the knowledge that you choose to acquire for your specialization can benefit you - or backfire!
Ultimately, how you choose to specialize should be based on your professional and personal goals. When I mention the word "specialization", people often associate this with picking a narrow and niche skillset. I honestly think that specializing in having a broad skillset is absolutely valid as well!
What Specializations are there?
In such a diverse field as software development, it can be hard to keep an overview of what types of specialisations exist. Here are just a few of many ways you can specialise:
- Frontend - help shape the user interface and experience
- Backend - create database optimisations and business logic
- Embeded Systems - work on hardware specific software
- Data Pipelines - produce effective data flows for machine learning and storage
- Consulting - communicate how software can help a client's needs (or discover their needs for them)
- Project Management - delegate work effectively between members of a team
- Games/Graphics - help implement technical game mechanics and effects
Every specialization can have a very big impact on your career, opening doors and closing others. It's important to have a very good understanding of the tradeoffs that you are making by choosing what skillset you want to focus on.
Going for a niche Specialization
The first big tradeoff I want to discuss is going to be the rarity of a particular skillset. Usually, the reason why a given skillset might not be as common as others is because it allows you to solve problems that most businesses do not face. When a business does end up facing these problems or is simply in a particular industry where this niche skillset is needed, that knowledge becomes a lot more valuable. One of the biggest reasons people go for a niche specialization is because they are hoping to increase their earning potential and job security, by being harder to replace and the reduced competition. These are good reasons, but there are also some problems with this approach and pitfalls you should be aware of before going down this path.
If you are looking to specialize by obtaining a skillset that most people do not have, you need to make sure that there is enough demand, otherwise you don't have the leverage to charge a premium price. I was surprised to find that graphics developers don't actually earn more money than web developers (in some cases, they earn less). This is because although their skillset is not as common, fairly niche and requires a lot of knowledge that is hard to obtain, there is also less demand, meaning quite a few developers will still be competing for the same position.
Having a niche specialization is also going to narrow down your opportunities to work wherever you like. Developers are in demand everywhere, but if your specialization means you can only work with certain technologies or industries, you might find yourself needing to relocate.
Choosing a Specialization that is hard to acquire
Nowadays, there are not many skills and professions that one cannot learn online. This means that those which do require some type of formal qualification are going to be better paid as well. If you are still very early in your career (perhaps you haven't even studied yet and are just looking into whether you want to get into software development) it can be a great idea to get a degree qualification that allows you to work in areas that others can't. Of course simply choosing a skillset that does not require a degree but is much harder and intricate is also going to make you more valuable to your potential employee.
Let's take two examples - frontend web development and embedded software for automotive vehicles. For the first, it is possible to learn everything online and there are no qualifications that are necessary to do the job. For the latter, depending on the country, an employee will often require an engineering degree, because of the fact that customers are potentially in danger if there is a bug in the software. Furthermore, it requires a better, overarching understanding of multiple expert fields, like mathematics (AI), hardware and low level programming. This means that someone working in this field can expect a much higher salary, job security and less competition.
Specializing - by not Specializing (in one particular thing)
I already hinted at the fact that having a wide range of skills can also be deemed as specializing. Individuals that are very knowledgeable about the entire software development process are highly desirable for small companies and startups, because these businesses often lack the resources to hire specialists for everything and require their employees to "wear many hats". I also consider this to be a great option if you are just trying to learn a bunch of stuff and narrow down later on in your career. Although you might be less attractive to employers doing very specific types of software, I think that this option keeps you open to as more opportunities.
When should you Specialize?
As I mentioned, you can start thinking about specializing as early as when you are making a choice on what to study, which can have some serious advantages. My issue with this is that I don't think many young people have a good grasp of what they really want to do (myself included). There are many downsides to choosing a niche specialization, which I already mentioned earlier and while it is not impossible to pivot into something else, it can be much harder than if you had just begun with a more broad skillset.
This was exactly how it was for me, as someone who decided to specialize without getting a good understanding of what it was that I wanted. I had gotten a great job opportunity at a triple A games studio after I finished my studies and essentially achieved my childhood dream of becoming a game developer. The problem is that it was no longer what I wanted, I had different goals and ideals than when I was younger - that is part of growing up. It wasn't too hard for me to pivot into the field I wanted to, but I think that it is still important to point out this mistake and I suggest any young people reading this to avoid choosing something narrow too early.
"How should I proceed?" Some Practical advice.
If I was asked to give some definite advice on this matter for young developers, I would suggest trying out as much different stuff as possible. Get a good idea of what you enjoy, discover what lines up best with the job market's demands and choose a skillset according to that. It could be that you find a niche that you find interesting and is well paying. On the other hand, you might discover that you value flexibility more and get a broad skillset.
On the contrary, if a more mature individual looking to get into coding asked me what they should learn, I would suggest getting into a more broad field and not worry about a niche specialization just yet. Your primary focus should be to land a job and gain experience (which web development is best for, due to the demand).
If you are already in a developer career and thinking about specializing, I think it is important that you do your research before making a big move. Write down what your professional goals are and evaluate how choosing a particular specialization lines up with achieving these goals.