The canonical superhero: flies, bends metal bars into pretzels, wears tights with a long red cloak. But the IT-world needs a completely different set of superpowers. And to have them, it’s not required to be born on Krypton.

Who are these T-shaped people?

Long story short, the T-shaped people are individuals who can possess deep skills in at least one area as well as acquire broad knowledge and diverse skills.

The T metaphor comes from two lines combined:

  • vertical – stands for the depth of the main specialization;
  • horizontal – illustrates the breadth of related knowledge, a capability of solving an array of problems (and do it fast).

Experienced UI/UX designers have deep knowledge in design — it is their “І” line. Additional general understanding of business processes, management, psychology, programming languages makes them a classic example of T-shaped specialists.

In most cases, Т-people are Middle+ or Senior level specialists who have drilled into management besides their main technical skill. Т’s are in a high demand in product development and startups when you need to have a broader range of shallower skills on top of your “І”.

“In my current role being a generalizing specialist is more valuable.” Tech Lead Adel Salakh says. “I have to keep track of the project as a whole. This wouldn’t be possible without having a broader view. I believe mine skill set can be categorized as T-shaped one, as I had experience with projects ranging from low-level system programming to front end development.”

Why is it cool to be T-shaped?

“If a team consists of T-shaped people, it works seamlessly,” Nastya Khyzhniak, HR-consultant at Beetroot explains. “An understanding of the development processes as a whole helps a development team to build work on a project more accurately. For the supporting roles, like HR, the basics of development would be useful too. For example, in recruiting the right people for the project or during performance reviews.”

This, however, does not mean that you urgently should change from “I” to “T”. Just keep in mind that many modern professions are gradually transforming into T-shaped ones (even if it’s not called like that). The emergence of DevOps is just one of many good examples.

T-shaped people are the new IT superheroes

Jason Yip, Agile Coach at Spotify highlighted at least 5 reasons why generalizing specialists are so super-powered:

  1. T-folks are capable of many things and experts, at least, in one.
  2. Т-shaped people can adapt to wide-ranging demand.
  3. When working in a team with T-people, you can use experts to solve bottlenecks, and non-specialists to free expert’s time from non-priority tasks.
  4. T-specialists allow you to do more with the same number of people in a team (or do the same with fewer people).
  5. T’s provide more effective communication within the team and with the client.

T-shaped teams are flexible, self-sufficient and productive. They provide a comprehensive view of the project and usually have a deeper understanding of its needs. Therefore, they are capable of making complex decisions and releasing a top-notch product. Previously, HR relied on the main specialization when searching for the right candidate. Now they’ll more likely pick with the “T” principle in mind:

“Beetroot helps to build effective distributed teams for different companies worldwide,” Anastasia comments. “More often, the request is a Full-Stack specialist, for example, someone who knows both the front-end and the back-end.”

Adel Salakh adds: “The older the product, the more mature the tech stack in use – the more specialized developers it requires (Java back-end stack is a good example here). Companies that choose newer and more experimental stack setup require more generalist developers.“

How to become a true T?

There is no “know this, do that” list to consider yourself as T-folks in IT. You must have the “І” – deep knowledge and specialization for a start. The rest is curiosity, creativity, caring about the work that you do and practice. Practice as much as you can.

QA Team Lead Nataliia Mylostna has worked for more than nine years in code quality assurance. This is her main specialization. But knowing business analytics, teamwork management, data analytics, and work processes expands her role in a project. “From the very beginning, I’m involved as a Senior QA, but I can become more of a Processmaker, and BA / QA Analyst if needed,” Nata says.

T-shaped people

Aleksey Bobyr, Senior Node-developer, thinks that to form the “I” of a Middle+ specialist you need to learn IDE, Git, Docker, programming languages, frameworks, ticket system functionality, continuous integration systems, and other tools that you have to work with on a current project.

For the “I” of a Senior specialist, according to Aleksey, you need to deepen your expertise in methodologies (such as functional programming), architectures (for example, micro-services), the fundamentals of object-oriented programming or testing — everything you use every day. And then, experience the trends and go beyond your typical skill set.

Adel Salakh also recommends learning functional programming: “It’s already trendy, and I expect it to grow even more.” In Adel’s opinion, there are a couple of technologies that might be game changers in the upcoming years:

  • On the web, one very promising technology is WebAssembly. It might overthrow the hegemony of JavaScript on the client side and might induce an even bigger migration of applications from native code to the browser.
  • In system level/back-end programming, Rust is very ambitious and innovative and is gaining a lot of traction. In the future, it can be a good choice for writing micro-services and web servers, as well as compete in these areas with GoLang or Node.

Company-side of T formation

Companies can nurture the growth of T’s by involving specialists from different fields to work on one task, allowing employees to use the 80/20 rule (the Pareto Principle) etc. Beetroot regularly holds lectures for teams and provides a bonus for education. Furthermore, Beetroot also maintains and updates a knowledge-sharing base for internal use.

Nata Mylostna’s team plays Advent of Code: this is a collection of puzzles to practice a variety of skill sets and skill levels that can be solved using any of the programming languages. They practice speed, problem-solving and challenge each other. Nata’s team tracks the results and participants get rewards for resolved tasks.

The key to becoming a real T is to move away from being a narrowly focused specialist and to widen your experience.

“Large western companies (and sometimes startups too) are often looking not for a Java specialist, but also for a good Senior-developer,” Aleksey Bobyr adds. “Real pro is capable of mastering any technology under a project request.”

So the plan is:

  • expand your expertise into areas you are less comfortable in;
  • possess deep skills in one area (or in a few areas at a time);
  • practice new tools, methodologies, architectures and programming languages;
  • keep an eye on the latest trends in your industry;
  • as a result, solve unsolved tasks (and maybe wear a long red cloak, as you are real IT-superhero).