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The End of Specialization?

There is a rule in sports and music about practice—the 10,000 hour rule—which says that if you want to be an expert on something, you need ten thousand hours of intentional practice. The corollary to this rule is: if you want to be really good at something, specialize. In colloquial language, you cannot be both a jack of all trades and a master of one.

Translating this to the network engineering world, we might say something like: it takes 10,000 hours to really know the full range of products from vendor x and how to use them. Or perhaps: only after you have spent 10,000 hours of intentional study and practice in building data center networks will you know how to build these things. We might respond to this challenge by focusing our studies and time in one specific area, gaining one series of certifications, learning one vendor’s gear, or learning one specific kind of work (such as design or troubleshooting).

This line of thinking, however, should immediately raise two questions. First, is it true? Anecdotal evidence seems to abound for this kind of thinking; we have all heard of the child prodigy who spent their entire lives focusing on a single sport. We also all know of people who have “paper skills” instead of “real skills;” the reason we often attribute to this is they have not done enough lab work, or they have not put in hours configuring, troubleshooting, or working on the piece of gear in question. Second, is it healthy for the person or the organization the person works for?

To make matters worse, we often see this show p in the job hunting process. The manager wants someone who can “hit the ground running” on this project, using this piece of equipment, and they want them on board and working tomorrow. In response, we see job descriptions and recruiting drives for specific skill sets, down to individual hardware and software.

I recently ran across two articles that push back on this 10,000 hours10,000 rule way of learning does not work.

Over time, as I delved further into studies about learning and specialisation, I came across more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range – and that there are benefits to doing so. I discovered research showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination). And I was stunned when cognitive psychologists I spoke with led me to an enormous and too-often ignored body of work demonstrating that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient – it looks like falling behind.

Re-read that last sentence—what turns out to be the most effective learning strategy often looks just like falling behind. Another recent article pointed out that deep expertise seems to be losing its sway in many workplaces. The author spends time around a new United States Navy littoral ship, which are designed to operate with much smaller crews—one-half to one-third of a comparably sized ship staffed in the traditional way. How do these ships operate? By cross training crew members to be able to do many different tasks.

One of the interesting things this latter article points out is this ability to do many different tasks requires fluid intelligence, which is a completely different set of skills than crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence, it seems, becomes stronger over time, peaking much later in life. While the article does not discuss how to develop the kind of fluid intelligence that will serve you well later in life, when this kind of thinking overtakes your narrower skill sets, it makes sense that building a broader set of skills over time is a more likely path than following the 10,000 hour rule.

There is, however, one question that neither author spends a lot of time discussing: if you are not focusing on learning one thing, then how, and on what, should you focus your time spent learning on? For the top athletes in the sports article, it seems like they spent a lot of time in different kinds of physical activity. There was an area of focus, but it was not the kind of narrow focus we normally associate with being excellent at one sport. In the same way, the sailors in the second article were all focused in a broader area—anything required to run a ship. Again, there is focus, but not the kind of narrow focus you might have expect on more standard boats, where one set of sailors just focus on working the lines, while another just focus on navigating, etc. The focus is still there, then—it is just a broader focus.

Why and how does this work? My guess is it works because the skills you learn in dancing, for instance, will help you learn better footwork in boxing and other sports (an example given in the sports article linked above). The skill you learn in handling the lines will help you understand the lay and movement of the boat in ways that are helpful in navigation. These skills, in other words, are somewhat adjacent.

But these skills are more than adjacent. Many of them are also basic, or theoretical, in ways we do not value in the network engineering world. The point I often hear made is: I don’t care about how BGP really works, so long as I can write a script that configures it, and I can troubleshoot it when it breaks. Or: I actually work on vendor x model 1234 all day, what I really need to know to be effective is how to configure it… when I need to replace that piece of gear, I will learn the next one so I can keep doing my job.

My point is this: this way of building skills, this way of working, does not “work” in the long term. There will come a point in your life, and in the life of your company, when point skills will weaken and lose their importance. The research, and experience, shows the better way to learn is to take on the long game, to learn the theory, and to practice the theory in many different settings, rather than focusing too deeply on one thing.

1 Comment

  1. Kenyone Johnson on 30 July 2019 at 11:52 pm

    I swear this is true; however, only so, in the networking field. Everyone else continues to hone their particular skill sets while we as networking people are always under appreciated and overwhelmed with expectations of skill set.



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