Diversifying your skill sets

Years ago, I remember reading a Wall Street Journal interview with Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams who said something to the effect of, “the way to be successful is to know as much as you can about as many different things as you can.” The article came out sometime in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find that article, and I’m unable to find it online, so you’ll just have to take me at my word — for what that’s worth.

For whatever reason, that sentiment has always stuck with me, and is evident in many activities in which I’m involved. In my musical endeavors, I play four different instruments (piano, clarinet, mallet percussion, and saxophone), and my music tastes run a fairly wide range (classical, jazz, adult contemporary, progressive/classic rock). As I’ve often written before, I am involved with CrossFit, which involves multiple movements and workouts; workouts are varied and are almost never performed twice in a row. As a baseball fan, I’ve always been appreciative of “utility” players such as Ben Zobrist who can play different positions in the infield and the outfield, allowing him to be plugged into nearly any lineup and reducing the need for multiple bench players.

This mindset has also manifested itself within my professional endeavors as well. I’ve practically made an entire career out of adapting to my environment, and a major reason for that is because I am capable of holding my own (if not being an expert) in a number of different areas. My main professional strength may be my technical writing and documentation, but it is not my only skill set. I am also capable of tasks that include (among other things) SQL Server, T-SQL scripting, object-oriented programming, UX/UI, and scripting on both the client and server sides, just to name a few. Granted, I’m not necessarily an expert in many of these skills — indeed, I sometimes describe myself as “knowing enough to be dangerous” — but in most cases, I’m able to hold my own. Maybe a better description for myself is “knows enough to be able to get it done.”

Such a diverse skill set has proven to be invaluable. Throughout my career, I’ve been able to comfortably handle a wide variety of tasks (the infamous “other duties as assigned”). It’s allowed me opportunities that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise had. I recently was assigned responsibility for a small but significant database role — a role I was assigned because I have SQL experience. Having these diverse skills have allowed me to adapt to my changing work environment.

Additionally, different skill sets are rarely, if ever, segregated; rather, they compliment each other. Cross-pollination between skills is nearly universal. A developer often needs to connect his or her application to a data source, in which case a background in databases is invaluable. The ability to communicate often helps a technologist to help an end user — a point that I often make in my presentation about talking to “non-techies.” In my experience with documentation and technical writing, I’ve found that my background with coding and databases has been invaluable for my documentation projects.

So to the aspiring career professional who asks me where (s)he should focus his or her skills, my response is… don’t. Although it might be okay to focus on an area of expertise, don’t ignore other skill sets. It will enrich your background, and your career will be all the better for it.