Being T-Shaped

Valve Software is the Pixar of videogames. A little while ago, Valve's handbook for new employees was leaked online. It's a fascinating look into how Valve works. Check it out.

While some of Valve's approaches may not be for every firm (for instance, there are no job descriptions, every employee's only responsibility is to figure out how they can best bring value to Valve's customers) there are some interesting bits on hiring and staffing:

Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Nothing else comes close. It’s more important than breathing.
Valve also looks for a very specific type of candidate:
That is, people who are both generalists (highly skilled at a broad set of valuable things—the top of the T) and also experts (among the best in their field within a narrow discipline—the vertical leg of the T).

This recipe is important for success at Valve. We often have to pass on people who are very strong generalists without expertise, or vice versa. An expert who is too narrow has difficulty collaborating. A generalist who doesn’t go deep enough in a single area ends up on the margins, not really contributing as an individual.
Or, visually:

Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 1.26.17 PM

I think that this is the model to copy.

Having lots of people with broad but overlapping skills and interests means that they can engage productively with one another in a number of configurations. This has worked exceptionally well for Valve and is also the approach of top-tier management consulting firms--or any company that values intelligence and diversity of professional background. Broad-range knowledge of many things gives colleagues common ground to build on together. Meanwhile, being a software developer is typically seen as an example of deep expertise.

This makes sense because there aren't tons of developers. Yet.

We're looking to change this: We take people armed with a career's worth of experience and give them them the beginnings of deep expertise in software development. Breadth of interest--from cooking to making music to reading and writing--helps people understand the problems and perspective of others--and build better tools.

Our graduates will bring not only technical competence but a broader worldview to their careers as developers: They'll be T-Shaped.

Long-term, our goal is to create code-literate society. Today coding is a deep expertise, but we look forward to a time when coding is part of the skill set of every broad range generalist.

That's when things get really exciting.