Team or Individual Skill Shapes: Which Matters More?

Growth Oct 26, 2020

The way we work is changing so rapidly that at this point it’s hard to expect anything to stay the same. We have accepted that we are working through a series of transitional moments from one new process to the next. The pandemic is responsible for some of this influence, but even before the global shake-up of COVID-19, workplaces were shifting.

Perhaps the most significant change in developers' working world has been the growth of new digital collaboration tools and platforms designed to make our jobs easier. Or different. Or more friendly. Trying to keep up with every new thing is hard. There’s a natural separation, like forks in the road, as employees find their niche and peel off to focus on growing skills and knowledge in specific areas.

Taking a look behind us, to the 1990s, we can see that the groundwork for skill set bifurcation was established with the “T-shaped” approach to describe talent. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, popularized the term “T-shaped” skills. It was then picked up and riffed on for the next several decades by other people to describe talent. Thinking about the shape of the letter “T,” the top crossbar (X-axis) represents the number of skills a person has, and the downstroke (Y-axis) describes the depth of knowledge in a specific discipline. So someone with a T-shaped skillset has broad ability across a range of topics, including things like communication and problem-solving and deep expertise in one topic area. The idea of “shaped” skills is dominant in the engineering field but marketers and similar industries also use it to describe their roles and skills.

What’s in a shape?

Before we go on, we need to establish a simple understanding of what it means to be a “T-shaped” engineer, or “Pi-shaped” or “X-shaped.”

I, Dash, and T-shaped skills

I-shaped

A (deep/tall/long) specialist in one specific area. Usually, without great collaboration, communication, or teamwork skills.

Dash-shaped

Not named because they are in a hurry! This developer is a generalist with broad knowledge across multiple technical and teamwork/communication areas but little depth in any specific discipline.

T-shaped

A combination of I-shaped and dash-shaped, someone with a T-shaped skill set has ability across many areas but expertise in one specific area.

M-shaped

An engineer with this skill shape has multiple specialties.

Pi-shaped

Kind of a combination of T and M shapes, this engineer combines breadth of knowledge (the top crossbar of the Pi) with a couple of specialties (the downstrokes of the Pi).

E-shaped

A combination of experience, expertise, exploration, and execution. This developer is mostly focused on execution by being able to transform ideas into reality.

X-shaped

In addition to being a developer, you have cross-training in leadership, strategy and team management.

Why does shape matter?

When an individual is building their career, making choices along the way that may or may not grow skills in certain areas, it can be helpful to know what skillset shapes are most desired. This puts you in a position of confidence as you work toward a shape that is best suited to your natural skills, interests, and career opportunities. A haphazard approach might leave you tragically Cthulhu-shaped, after all.

Knowing your skillset shape can also help you understand some crucial things about yourself and how you might show up in your career. You can identify areas of weakness to work on and areas of strength to emphasize.

What about team shape?

Indeed. With all the attention going toward the shape of the individual, it’s time to investigate the team shape. Teams are where the real jewel of “shapes” lives. Whether you are a developer secure in your career and your current position, or a developer looking for a job; a hiring manager building a team, or a team leader trying to understand why things aren’t working quite right; understanding what shapes are missing from the team is critical.

Let’s dig into this a little:

Developer secure in current position

Take a look at your team of engineers. Can you easily identify gaps in skills? What are the skill areas that have overlap across many team members? Are there skill gaps that you can fill just by brushing up on a tool or taking a communication seminar? How can you become more valuable in your contribution to the team shape?

Developer looking for a position

In the job postings you see, what are the skills most desired? Do you have them? If not, can they be developed? When you go for an interview, ask about the overall makeup of the team you’ll be joining, with the intent to understand skill gaps that you can fill. You might not be able to fill them immediately, but a recognition that they exist and a promise to pursue them may be the thing that sets you apart with hiring managers.

Hiring manager building a team

You’ll know instinctively where the team shape falls apart. And where it’s plenty strong. Can an existing developer be trained up to fill a gap? Identifying holes in the team shape can help you draft the job posting and interview with those holes in mind specifically.

Team leader trying to understand why things aren’t working right

It could be that the skill set needed already exists on your team, but it hasn’t been called on to serve. A close look at every step of the day can reveal where things break down and where the holes are in capabilities. Before you look outside, get crisp on the team’s missing links and share this with your team. Those developers who have an eye on growing their skills and knowledge will likely step forward to fill the gap.

Can a person re-shape themselves?

Absolutely. As suggested above, one way to become more valuable in your role (or to prospective employers) is to fill skill gaps you see in your team. The only way to do that is to re-shape your skillset, possibly into an as-yet-unidentified shape.

What skills can I re-shape on my own?

You can. In a pinch, you can learn hard skills on your own. Growing your knowledge of tools and platforms, coding languages and specialty areas like mobile development, machine learning and artificial intelligence can be done with training programs. That said, it is often better to learn these skills from mentors and in a real-world setting. If you have the opportunity to learn from your team, you should take it.

What skills do I need help re-shaping?

It will be harder to re-shape your soft skills on your own. These are the most needed skills across engineering groups and are the hardest to acquire and refine. Problem-solving ability, active listening, conflict management – these and more beg interaction and feedback from a mentor or colleague.

How can I adapt my skill sets?

Wanting to adapt, change, and grow is the first step. Recognize that it’s essential to match your natural affinity and abilities with the gaps you see in your team or industry because this will give you the most reward for your effort. Aside from that, there are some straightforward steps you can take to re-shape your soft skills:

  • Seek feedback. Then respond positively to it and incorporate it into your work.
  • Find ways to collaborate. Try different approaches in this collaboration environment. For one project, try taking the lead. For another, take a quieter position.
  • Ask for help when you need it. Asking for help can be challenging, but it is so necessary. It sets an excellent example for others on your team and helps establish a culture of cooperation and teamwork.
  • Recognize others when they’re doing things well. Also useful for establishing a positive team culture.

Botany.io is a smart virtual coach designed to help software engineering and managers professionally grown and improve their habits and grow together.

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Myron McMillin

Co-founder at botany.io

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