August 23, 2023
People & Culture

Why I believe the t-shaped model of skills falls short

Everyone agrees, and I agreed at one point, that a t-shape model for skills is a great idea.

The model explains that an individual should be an expert in a field, and then have secondary skills that let them be functional and efficient cross teams.

But I believe that it’s wrong, that a better model would be something like this:

Take me as an example, I can say I am an expert in javascript and web technologies, since I worked at that for more than 10 years, always at the edge of the space. Trained and coached hundreds if not thousands of people since taught, trained and gave talks on the subject. But I can also say that I’m quite an expert in UX, Server side technologies, business and strategy (both product and business).

So, a t-shape model falls short, because in some cases, like working in agencies, one must be almost an expert in several fields, not just one. And being an expert in just one field could be actually a liability, since projects must fall into those capabilities or you risk being benched.

I believe the t-shaped skills model should be the baseline and not the goal. Also the t naming is confusing and a lot of people believe they must be an expert in1 and only 1 field and good at best in a range of soft skills / interdisciplinary knowledge. 

That model is ok for some success. But to be really successful another model should be looked at, some call it polymath, or M-Shaped Model but I dare to say you don’t need to go as far.

You should have a baseline knowledge that lets you interact with other teams, BUT you could and should look to become an expert in several skills/fields. This will grant you an amazing big picture view of the world around you and will help you succeed in any adventure you seek to pursue. 

Also this expertise in several fields, will help you improve your other expertises, drawing knowledge and lessons learned from these other skills into them. 

You can be a master in one field, but you can be almost as good at some others. Mastery requires intentional practice and dedication, but contrary to the forging masters of Japan, you can practice a couple skills at the same time, slotting and dedicating enough time to all of them. 

For example, let’s say you are a software developer, but you also love writing. You could practice your software skills, while writing blog posts about your learning path, taking writing classes and helping others learn from you. 

Let also say, if you like UX and design, you could learn about user behavior, psychology and UX patterns, that you will then use as you develop your web application. 

Some of the issues with the existing T-Shaped Model come from its evolution or the broken phone line problem. As people used the term more and more, some of the key implicit concepts were lost in the translation.

When first used, the term didn’t mean to have JUST ONE deep area of expertise, but it could be several. The problem, in my opinion, comes from the name, the T has only one stem, hence people used it literally and that created its downfall.

In a name lies the birth of the problem, and that’s why naming things is such a complicated matter, sometimes for simplification and marketing of an idea, a name is picked and people take its meaning or analogy as literal as they can, and the concept loses its force, its nature and its complete meaning.

Blogpost written by: Franco Monsalvo

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