rmurphey Adventures in JavaScript

5 reasons you don't really want a jack-of-all-trades developer

2 Aug 2008 edit

I've spent the last couple of weeks trolling Craigslist and have been shocked at the number of ads I've found that seem to be looking for an entire engineering team rolled up into a single person. Descriptions like this aren't at all uncommon:

Candidates must have 5 years experience defining and developing data driven web sites and have solid experience with ASP.NET, HTML, XML, JavaScript, CSS, Flash, SQL, and optimizing graphics for web use. The candidate must also have project management skills and be able to balance multiple, dynamic, and sometimes conflicting priorities. This position is an integral part of executing our web strategy and must have excellent interpersonal and communication skills.

Really. Now I don't know about you, but if I were building a house, I wouldn't want an architect doing the work of a carpenter, or the foundation guy doing the work of an electrician. But ads like the one above are suggesting that a single person can actually do all of these things, and the simple fact is that these are fundamentally different skills. The foundation guy may build a solid base, but put him in charge of wiring the house and the whole thing could, well, burn down. When it comes to staffing a web project or product, the principle isn't all that different -- nor is the consequence. I've thought a lot about this these last couple of weeks, and I don't think this post is sour grapes about the fact that I don't have the top-to-bottom, front-to-back web development skills that this ad and others seem to be asking for. I'm proud and confident of the abilities I've assembled when it comes to front-end development, and I have a rock-solid understanding of what makes websites tick. The thing is, the more you know, the more you find out you don't know. A year ago I'd have told you I could write PHP/MySQL applications, and do the front-end too; now that I've seen what it means to be truly skilled at the back-end side of things, I realize the most accurate thing I can say is that I understand PHP applications and how they relate to my front-end development efforts. To say that I can write them myself is to diminish the good work that truly skilled PHP/MySQL developers are doing, just as I get a little bent when a back-end developer thinks they can do my job. So to all of those companies who are writing ads seeking one magical person to fill all of their needs, I offer a few caveats before you post your next Craigslist ad:

  1. If you're seeking a single person with all of these skills, make sure you have the technical expertise to determine whether a person's skills match their resume. Outsource a tech interview if you need to. Any developer can tell horror stories about inept predecessors, but when a front-end developer like myself can read PHP and think it's appalling, that tells me someone didn't do a very good job of vetting and got stuck with a programmer who couldn't deliver on his stated skills.
  2. A single source for all of these skills is a single point of failure on multiple fronts. Think long and hard about what it will mean to your project if the person you hire falls short in some aspect(s), and about the mistakes that will have to be cleaned up when you get around to hiring specialized people. I have spent countless days cleaning up after back-end developers who didn't understand the nuances and power of CSS, or the difference between a div, a paragraph, a list item, and a span. Really.
  3. Writing efficient SQL is different from efficiently producing web-optimized graphics. Administering a server is different from troubleshooting cross-browser issues. Trust me. All are integral to the performance and growth of your site, and so you're right to want them all -- just not from the same person. Expecting quality results in every area from the same person goes back to the foundation guy doing the wiring. You're playing with fire.
  4. Asking for a laundry list of skills may end up deterring the candidates who will be best able to fill your actual need. Be precise in your ad: about the position's title and description, about the level of skill you're expecting in the various areas, about what's nice to have and what's imperative. If you're looking to fill more than one position, write more than one ad; if you don't know exactly what you want, try harder to figure it out before you click the publish button.
  5. If you really do think you want one person to do the task of an entire engineering team, prepare yourself to get someone who is OK at a bunch of things and not particularly good at any of them. Again: the more you know, the more you find out you don't know. I regularly team with a talented back-end developer who knows better than to try to do my job, and I know better than to try to do his. Anyone who represents themselves as being a master of front-to-back web development may very well have no idea just how much they don't know, and could end up imperiling your product or project -- front to back -- as a result.

If your budget really is limited to a single position, you might want to consider whether you'd be better off working with several contractors with specific and proven skills, rather than a single person who claims to encompass everything you're after. Your management overhead will increase in the short term, yes, but your headaches down the road will decrease exponentially. In the process, you'll gain access to people who can help you evaluate potential full-timers, and probably gain some insight into the actual list of skills a full-timer needs to provide. If you're one of the people who's written these ads, all is not lost. Invest in a technical consultant -- probably one you can't afford to hire full-time -- to help you really understand your needs and the skills required to solve them. Often they can assist you with writing and posting the ad, and interviews too. For example, I'll meet with a client, write and post a detailed ad, identify candidates, and interview contenders; if I don't have the technical skills required to evaluate a candidate, chances are I personally know someone who can. Doing that homework up front, and understanding and describing what your needs really are, is vastly more likely to give you the perfect fit you're after than if you just cast a wide net and see what you catch.

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