Ever since switching jobs a while back, one of the questions I'm asked most often by co-workers and friends I don't see that often is...

What exactly is your job, anyway?

The funny thing is that I've never had a short answer for it. Instead, I have to rattle off a medium sized list of loosely related things I end up getting involved in. And people seem generally puzzled at first but eventually say, "oh... that's kind of cool." Reading Ken Norton's How to hire a product manager made me realize why there's puzzlement:

The first thing you notice at a big company is the amount of specialization. At a startup, everyone does a little of everything, so you need strong generalists. More importantly, it's hard to predict the future, so you need people who can adapt. You might think you're hiring somebody to work on something specific, but that something might change in a few months. It doesn't work that way at big companies. Usually when you're hiring you have a very specific role in mind, and the likelihood that that responsibility will change is low.

See, they know I work at a big company, so they figure that what I do has a "normal" job title associated with it. Thus... brief puzzlement.

In job interviews (internal or external), I've often told hiring managers that I tend to get bored if I'm doing the same thing for more than a few years. So it's a wonder I've managed to survive at Yahoo! for over 5.5 years already, isn't it?

Not really--because I've moved around a few times. But I've recently come to understand that while this is possible and even encouraged it's not common. Most people tend to do the same (or a very similar) job for quite a long time.

In other words, unlike a lot of people here I must be a generalist. Or, as someone recently told me... A startup guy.

Somehow, seeing this all from a slightly different angle makes me more comfortable with it. I don't know why.

Posted by jzawodn at June 14, 2005 09:40 AM

Reader Comments
# Ian Neubert said:

Being a generalist is great! We just have to make sure that we have a very large hat rack :)

on June 14, 2005 10:53 AM
# Clint Sharp said:

This happens to me all the time. I work for a large company in a division that's trying to behave like a startup. What this means is that they basically grasp none of the fundmentals of what makes a startup successful and instead try to say it's like a startup because they're not going to hire many people. We're staffed largely by chiefs (we have a Vice President and a Director below them for nearly every "division", with all the commiserate salaries) and very few indians. This means that the people who do the actual implementation work are forced to be generalists as you called them (I usually label myself "jack of all trades").

The problem with this kind of experience is that when it comes time to go interview at another big company and you've not been a specialist, they seriously look down on you. I've done 3 interviews recently, and while I made it pretty far (final cut on 2 of them), someone who was more specialized or had prior experience in that specialty was chosen both times. Only one of those jobs was I actually excited about, so that's probably ok. However, being a generalist can hurt you in the interview process. I think I'm much more suited to working in a startup. Big companies don't appreciate people who can easily adapt and who have experience in a wide range of things. The sad thing is, in my experience even the people who specialize are not experts, they've just got the experience with that specific subject on their resume to make them seem ok to the other specialists who are the gatekeepers to those positions. Strange how that sort of attitude perpetuates in large companies.

on June 14, 2005 11:31 AM
# Mike said:

> What exactly is your job, anyway?

Don't you just blog? ;P

on June 14, 2005 11:54 AM
# Philip Tellis said:

Oh we have a whole bunch of C++ and Java programmers doing PHP

on June 14, 2005 12:19 PM
# Jim said:

I recently had to leave my previous job because they started growing and specializing.

See, when I started there, it was a startup and there were only a few of us. I did almost everything that was IT related. I did a lot of programming, sure, but I really enjoyed doing the occasional PC troubleshooting, Server Administration, or research into a new piece of software that could help us.

The company, though, decided that they were relying too much on me, so as soon as they could afford it, they hired 2 more people to the IT staff and told me "now you don't have to worry about all that extra junk, and you can spend all your time programming." They did this without consulting me on it at all. They just did it. The fact that they didn't consult me bothered me a lot, but I got over it. The fact that they wanted me to be "just a programmer" was NOT cool, and I only stayed for couple more months before I got fed up and had to leave.

Now I'm working for myself as an IT consultant, so not only do I get to do all kinds of IT related things, I also get to do all kinds of small business related things. I love it, for now.

I don't think I could ever work at a large company.

on June 14, 2005 12:38 PM
# Aaron Brazell said:

I work for a large company. VERY large. Fortune 53 large. But I am wearing many hats and continue to do so. There is plenty of opportunity for any willing employee to wear many hats. So while, in general, I think you are right Jeremy, there is at least one major exception.

on June 14, 2005 01:28 PM
# GrumpY! said:

on this recurring theme that you are some beacon of startup qualities: startup people are people who do startups. they are as repellent to large companies as large companies are to them, often because they talk to people in the same way regardless of their station at the company. if you defer to people simply because they are above you in the org chart, startups are not for you. conversely are you prepared to have a subordinate call you a f**king idiot in front of a crowd when you are being one? don't reflexively think that being startup-biased is a good thing, its not for everyone. lastly it must be said few of these people i have know spend time blogging, they don't have time.

on June 14, 2005 02:20 PM
# James said:

> conversely are you prepared to have a subordinate call you a f**king idiot in front of a crowd when you are being one

Followed 99.9% of the time by the boss telling said subordinate "You're f**king fired" ...

on June 14, 2005 03:22 PM
# Joseph Lindsay said:

I'm a the web generalist in a medium sized organisation. The problem is that because I can do most things, I'm left with the crap jobs just because I can. I guess I just have to build my own startup.

on June 14, 2005 04:45 PM
# codey said:

I am only way too familiar with the "never had a short answer for it" paradigm. At any given point in time during a working day, I could be managing the RSS side to things, multimedia, road maps and workflow for new stuff and a whole lot of fire fighting.

Last month I told my COO that I wanted to quit because it was getting to be too boring and that I was not getting any major kicks out of what I was doing, especially when there were such a lot of exciting stuff being done by Yahoo!, Google etc and that we were only limited by our own expectations and imagination from being on the cutting edge.

The reply I got was "Well, I am no Birin or Filo and this is not Yahoo! or Google, so you have to make do with what you have."

it sucks, but it is very much true.

on June 14, 2005 11:39 PM
# Adam said:

Amen, Jeremy! I'm working some great gigs right now with companies that appreciate my generalist talents, but in the past, I've frequently gotten dinged for having a strong generalist (communications-oriented) and international background.

Particularly notable in my experience is the oft-small-mindedness of larger American firms. After finishing an exciting and productive project in Germany (I'm American), at least one Fortune 500 company interviewer asked me (in seriousness): "So, uh, Germany? You couldn't get a job with an American company?"

And even mid-sized companies are often shooting themselves in the foot. Look at the job reqs: "7 years of this, 11 years of that, and specific experience selling mid-level scalable solutions to hispanics in the northeastern seaboard areas." In other words, there's the (rather stupid) assumption that having experience in a particularly narrow niche is superior to being a hard worker, a creative thinker, a smart communicator.

I understand that HR folks gotta narrow the reams of resumes somehow, but it's all just gotten ridiculous in the last few years...

on June 15, 2005 09:13 PM
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