ership, communication, or even new
˲ They have a deep understanding.
When engineers work with a particular technology for a long time, they
learn the nooks and crannies of how
it works—the good parts and the ugly
parts. This can force them to think
about the very constructs of how the
technology was built. For example,
discovering a bug in a foundational
library teaches them to write better
software. This depth also allows them
to pick up other technologies faster.
When you hire engineers who have
experience in a particular technology
and can operate at this level, they are
able to get up to speed quickly. They
will have to learn the way your particular systems and software work, but
they will not have to learn the tools
and technology they were written in.
While there is definitely value in
gaining that deep experience—and it
should be part of your career plan—it
is also important to have breadth.
Making the case for going wide.
When I look at my own career path, I
can say it is my breadth that has helped
me the most. As a developer, the fact
that I understood operations, lower-level operating systems, and compilers helped me write better code. And
as a manager, having experience with
other disciplines helps me work with
those people better.
For example, we have all written
software tests, but when you work
with really great testers and learn the
way they think and approach problems, this helps you not only work
better alongside them, but also write
more robust code.
As a technology executive, you cannot just understand the technology—
you also have to understand the business. You have to focus on customers,
think about product, and be able to
understand the financial implications
of your decisions. Often, you are managing people doing a job you have never done yourself—but you still need to
be able to measure their impact and
mentor them to success.
In these cases, it isn’t enough to
know just one technology well; in fact,
if that is the case, you won’t be successful. You have to have breadth and be
able to think through other aspects of
the problems you are solving, and you
must have a broader understanding to
work with people in different roles.
So Should You Go Wide or Deep?
I once had the privilege of having a
mentoring session with a VP at one
of the great software companies. I
asked him about his background and
what he felt got him to his position.
He told me that he started his career
as a software engineer and soon realized that being the best software engineer would be hard; software testing, on the other hand, was much less
competitive, and a lot of people didn’t
have the passion for it that he did.
He changed his career path to pursue software testing and went on to
write several books. He became one
of the best in the world at testing and
was asked to speak at conferences all
over the world. The VP title and responsibility came later but was a natural progression.
His advice to me: pick something
you can be the best in the world at. Spe-
cialize in it. Pursue it above everything
else. Success will come along with it.
In many ways this is true. When you
are truly exceptional at something,
you build career capital, and you
can trade that capital for bigger paychecks, more flexibility, or even fancy
When people ask me the question of where they should focus their
time—should I keep learning one
technology or spend time learning a
new one?—I ask them that very question: What is the one thing you could
be the best in the world at?
The answer might be going deep or
going wide—the important thing is to
spend your time on building the skills
that will move you to where to you
want to go.
1. Shin, L. 7 steps to developing career capital—and
achieving success. Forbes; http://bit.ly/2wgoieh.
Kate Matsudaira ( katemats.com) is the founder of
her own company, Popforms. Previously she worked at
Microsoft and Amazon as well as startups like Decide,
Moz, and Delve Networks.
Copyright held by author.
Publication rights licensed to ACM. $15.00.