Being a generalist

In a continuation of my reflections on my personal brand as a generalist, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a generalist in corporate America. What is the value proposition that I as a generalist bring to companies and how can my skill set contribute to a company’s success? To put it more starkly, if I were to work as a generalist consultant, what would that even mean and how would I measure my contributions? Grant McCracken’s been struggling with the same question as an anthropologist, and it seems like there’s a lot of overlap between his answer and mine:

“Anthropologists are good at recognizing patterns in social and cultural data. My clients get this about me. They used to ask me to find the solution. More and more, they ask me to find the problem. How, they ask, should we be thinking about this? Anthropologists are good pattern seekers, good assumption hunters.”

Along similar lines, I’ve often said that one of my skills is asking the right questions. When confronted with an unfamiliar situation, I can draw analogies to other situations that I have previously dealt with, and ask a series of questions to narrow the cone of uncertainty. Once the situation is framed appropriately, that elicits a series of appropriate questions. I may not know the answers to those questions, but once the right questions are being asked, I can call on the appropriate specialists to answer those questions, as I described in a previous post defending generalists.

This reminds me of a question a friend asked me a couple months ago: does being a generalist just mean specializing in multiple areas? My instinctive answer was no, but it took me a while to articulate why. There is a different attitude towards the world – when confronted with a problem, a specialist, even a multi-specialist, tries to figure out how to use their mastery to answer the problem as posed, whereas a generalist asks questions to understand the system, possibly revealing an underlying problem that should be handled by a different specialist. I do think that experience in multiple specializations will tend to incline one towards the generalist attitude, as the different perspectives of each specialization will make one have to think about how the system fits together; after all, that’s how I got to this point, wending my way through physics and software and biotech. But I don’t think that’s the only way to become a generalist.

This question of what it means to be a generalist has also come up recently as I try to explain my latest career move to friends; when I say “I’m going to work for Google…”, they nod and say “Yeah, makes sense”, but when I continue with “…as a financial analyst”, they look confused and don’t see how it makes sense with the rest of my career. To explain what attracts me to this position requires a digression into my generalist quest, as part of the reason for taking this job is to give me more perspectives with which to work, including a financial perspective, a quantitative modelling perspective, and the perspective of working for a large company as opposed to a startup. Understanding how companies work as a system requires understanding the financial side, as that is a driving factor in many corporate decisions.

Getting back to the original question of what it may mean to be a generalist consultant, I think it may mean analyzing companies as systems by examining how the different parts of the company are working together. By being able to talk to each area of the company in their own language, based on my own experience as a developer, scientist, manager, and now analyst, I could see how the areas are working together or against each other. The delivered analysis would include asking and answering the right questions to understand why delivered results are not consistent with stated goals, including inconsistent incentive plans, interdisciplinary communication difficulties, etc. (as an aside, I need to do some more reading in the field of organizational behavior and organizational learning, as that would seem to be a field where these sorts of questions are being asked). And the experience of building revenue models at Google will give me tools that may be useful in generating ROI spreadsheets to convince management of the value of such analyses. I don’t know – I’m still playing around with ideas here, as the branding of myself as a generalist is still a work in progress.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on how my generalist perspective sometimes mischievously reveals itself.

P.S. I’m back! Since my last post three weeks ago, I’ve road tripped across the country with a friend and a harp via Chicago, the South Dakota Badlands and Yellowstone, moved into a rented house in Mountain View, and caught up with several Bay Area friends. I start work at Google on Monday, but I’ve been enjoying the time off after a crazy summer of job hunting, packing and moving. If you’re around and want to hang out this week, let me know.

5 thoughts on “Being a generalist

  1. Eric,

    I have been lurking around here for quite a while — and I have to tell you that I relate you with you quite a bit. Having originally come through as a programmer via a math/computer science background, as well as holding down different positions in different industries, I am now the only non-actuary on a team of actuaries doing financial analysis for an insurance company.

    After looking at the position you are taking, I have to admit it looks like a great opportunity. I will be interested to hear about your experiences at Google.

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