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Should an engineer be an expert in one thing, or ok/good at everything?

Today’s topic is an interesting one, and depends largely on personal preference.  It’s something that comes up for engineers every day:  Be decent at many things, or be the absolute end-all-be-all expert in one thing?  Some might respond with, “Well, how about being an expert at everything?”

Aside: It sounds funny, but this should probably be the goal for every engineer.  I got great advice from my first manager:  create a skill matrix.  It was essentially an organized goal table consisting of career goals, skills, techniques, subject matter to learn, etc. that I wanted to accomplish.  Being an expert in all of them is optimal, but time and job constraints often prove this difficult.

When it comes to the question at hand, many times engineers do not have much choice.  Management will often make that choice for the engineer when they prioritize staff time and resources.  But, let’s assume that there is a degree of freedom and the engineer can choose which-tech skills and/or design techniques on which he can focus.  What should be in the engineer’s best interest for career advancement and job security?  There are advantages and disadvantages to a broader skill set vs. a more focused one.

Jack of all Trades

The advantages to being good across many job functions are tied to versatility.  Frankly, the company can use you more ways, and this can be very advantageous during times of change at the workplace.  There are more subtle advantages, too.  With a more broad skill set, the engineer tends to communicate across multiple design groups.  The engineer also proves to be more resourceful, finding answers on his own without the help of others.  These skills translate VERY well to management.  In fact, one could claim that technical managers are the kings of being good at many things (and hopefully experts in a few).  Another advantage to working across groups are the personal connections.  Knowing more people in the industry, and working on design successes together, always bodes well for future job prospects.

Domain Expert

The advantages to being an expert at one job function are tied to indispensability.  Engineers in this mode often can not be replaced within the company.  This can also be a valuable position to be in during company changes.  If no one else has the technical expertise to handle a specific design, the expert skills are invaluable to job security.  Often, these engineers have an increased sense of ownership or pride over designs, as their contributions are clearly vital to the success of the company.  The increased focus and concentration that the engineer can apply to one section of the design is preferred by some as well.  By not switching topics, starting new design flows with other groups, or reviewing others’ work, the engineer can really hone his skills to an expert level.  Just as being versatile helps with connections, specific expertise can be an immediate job creator when other companies look for this targeted skill set.

Obviously, engineers would like to be experts across the board.  Throughout our careers, I do think we should strive for this.  But, with stringent time constraints placed by our corporate bosses to push-to-market and make profit, it often proves difficult to either a) branch out and learn something new, or b) focus as intently on possible on one function and become the expert.

In your experience, which is better:  Expert in one thing, or good at many things?  Why?

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  1. I don’t think it’s worth worrying about because no career (or life) goes as planned. It’s better instead to be entrepreneurial minded: learn to find the opportunities, and let the career path chips fall where they may. It does feel good to categorize ourselves as this or that type of engineer (or person), but it’s limiting.

  2. I made up my mind 20 years ago when I started my mechanical engineering career to develop a sound understanding of all mechanical engineering fundamentals…heat transfer, fluid dynamics, mechanics of materials, statics, dynamics, etc. By continuing to develop these sound fundamentals, I have been able to practice in many different areas, be employed in a variety of roles and with various employers, and finally start my own consulting business. Had I chosen to become an expert at just one thing, I would have been trapped in the situations that many engineers have fallen into, especially today…..being very valuable to one company, one industry, or one technology and unable to cross into something else when they get laid off or the industry and technology dies. I consult for many companies whose engineers are experts at one thing and get stuck on a problem that often gets solved by looking outside their area of expertise.

  3. Nice article Brian.
    My view on this is as follows: If we all pursued perfection in everything, then we would end up being mediocre because we all cannot simply be the greatest in everything we do. An old professor once told me that I would be a better engineer if I knew that no other engineer could do something better than I could.
    I believe that this is what engineers should strive for in that, through collaboration we can as a collective body of engineers achieve perfection in everything we do.

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