15 Comments

I agree with your critique to an extent, especially of Big Consulting, but mainly as it applies to job prospecting. However, in terms of actual problem-solving in the real world, I think if anything there are too FEW generalists; many people in STEM (I come from the medical side, with a splash of tech) get so hyper-focused in a narrow area that they cannot think outside their little boxes and become victims of the other damaging syndrome: "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." David Epstein's book "Range" is an excellent exploration of the value of generalists and why we need both people with breadth as well as technical specialists.

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Spot on! I wish I had read this 25 years ago. I especially identify with the part where one has to give up options. That’s not just in one’s career, that’s in life. We all have to get better at saying no to some interests that we want to do so that we have the time and focus to become competent at a professional specialty / hobby that we truly want to do. I finally landed in my specialty within the last four years. Well done.

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Sep 25, 2023Liked by Dan Hockenmaier

Hi Dan -- loved the essay! Wanted to take the chance to say that I've continued to get a ton of value from your tweets/posts since our interview process a few years back.

Like many consultants/former consultants, this essay and generalist disease strikes a nerve. I still describe myself as a generalist quite often. What I would have been interested to explore more are the different ways that one goes from generalist to specialist. Specialist by industry or by function come to mind, but curious if there are others that you would add.

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Sep 25, 2023Liked by Dan Hockenmaier

Words can't express how much I love this essay, thanks for writing it! You have literally described my career trajectory so far and the switch I am trying to make towards a path that I would like to specialise on! Hopefully, I will soon be in the same spot you are right now :)

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I think specialization in product management means you know the customers and industry extremely well.

In product management it's much harder to hop industries, as oppose to other functions like design or engineering. When you hop industries you have to start over, since you're in a different problem space.

As your career progresses companies are hiring you for your domain expertise in addition to your ability to build successful products.

That being said, you can carve out a specialization for yourself within product management. A great example of this is Elena Verna who specializes in product-led-growth and April Dunford who specializes in positioning.

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This is a thought provoking read. Your hypothesis that generalists often solve for optionality feels spot on. Unfortunately this approach can often lead to a paradox of choice (too many options) - lack of conviction, lack of risk-taking, lack of depth, etc.

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Ooof as a proud generalist, I wish you'd avoided branding me as someone with a disease. There is not just one path to success in your career, and it's a shame that you couldn't speak more to that.

"Ultimately you must specialize to build real leverage, which requires the exact opposite of increasing optionality." - the leverage I have built throughout my career is because of my generalist skills, not in spite of them.

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What does being really good at product Managment mean as in the depth of the field? Or does specialization mean that you know the customers or a domain or a function extremely extremely well?

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