A lot of people ask me where to start if they want to become a WordPress expert or want to build a career around web design and development. My answer is they need to play doctor. If you know anyone who has gone to medical school this makes sense. If not you probably think I’m crazy. So let me explain:
The Virtue of the Generalist
All medical doctors are generalists that have one or several specialist focus areas. When you go to medical school, you don’t start off saying “I want to be a thoracic surgeon” and jump right into the OR. You start with the basics learning how the body works and getting a baseline education that matches up with your fellow students. Once you pass this introductory level you move on the next level where you are rotated through each of the major specialty fields and get to try your hands at the many different things a doctor can do. And it is only after that level is passed you get to choose your specialty.
Why is it like this? Because having doctors with specialized knowledge but lacking a general understanding of the human body and medical science would be insane. To be a good specialist doctor you first need to be a good Generalist. The same goes for web designers and developers.
In the last few years much has been said about the virtue of the generalist. Many argue that modern industry, and in particular the tech and web industries, are putting too much focus on the specialist. This can be seen as the counterpoint to the current movement of celebrities and rich folk are touting the importance of everyone learning how to code (though opposition is brewing), job listings stats showing excellence in specific code languages (in particular Java) can pave a path to six figure salaries, and the web overflowing with code focused groups, showcases, and conferences. The argument claims we have forgotten that the generalists are the ones that can move between roles, learn new skills as needed, and compliment the specialists when and where it’s needed. I agree and I would take that one step further and argue that the generalist is and should be the center point around which the specialists form a circle. The generalist is the proverbial glue that keeps the project together.
Everything is Connected
From the outside looking in it may appear as if the web industry consists of a series of hermetically sealed compartments, each containing a specialty. You have design, front end development, server development, interactive development, platform, information architecture, user experience, content curation, quality assurance, project management, the list goes on. In general each of these fields are presented as stand-alone units. The reality is the opposite. Each of these, and many other, specialties join together to form a whole. Or at least they do in an ideal world. To properly complete a web site or mobile app or online service you need to call on each of these specialties, often at the same time. IA, UX, platform, front- and back-end development, and content curation should happen simultaneously and in a joint effort. And the other components – quality assurance, project management, and so on – are there to keep the project on track and within budgets and timelines. Everything is connected.
The problem is that unlike the doctor who starts off as a generalist and then chooses a specialty, many people who work on the web start off as specialists and then keep honing in on that specialty without getting a firm foundation of generalized knowledge. This is especially true in Open Source and the WordPress community. And it’s a big problem.
The Tower of Babel
The key issue is that a specialist is a specialist: She has an intricate understanding of everything within her field, but a severely limited understanding of anything outside of it. And because of this narrow hyper-focused field of vision she is by definition not able to see the whole picture. So while a specialist may be an excellent coder or designer or information architect, she will not be able to complete a project from start to finish, and more alarmingly she will have serious difficulties working with specialists from other fields.
In becoming a specialist at anything you acquire the language and world view of a specialist. And in talking about your field you use language and baseline assumptions that don’t correspond to those of your audience. Put two specialists together and they might as well speak two entirely different languages. While their words might be the same, the meaning of those words will be too far apart for comprehension. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Left to their own devices specialists will invariably create solutions that work based on their own parameters rather than ones that work for the project as a whole. Square peg, meet round hole.
Become an Expert by Playing Doctor
To become a true expert at anything you have to understand the fundamental principles of your chosen topic. For doctors that means the human body and medical sciences. For anyone working on the web that means the fundamentals of IA, UX, platform, design, development (front- and back-end), content curation, quality assurance, and so on. It doesn’t matter whether you want to be a specialist designer or the best PHP coder on the market, whether you want to revolutionize the science of information architecture or thrive to make sense of impossibly complex webs of content. To truly deliver those specialized skills and be able to work and be valued in the field you need to have a foundational understanding of the core principles, skills, and language of each of the branches that join to make it up. You need to start off as a generalist and then choose a specialty.
Every Journey Begins with a Single Step etc.
For anyone starting out this probably seems an insurmountable task. It is so much easier to pick a specialty and focus in on it than it is to look at the bigger picture and immerse yourself in all its complexity. My advice to you is akin to that old and overused proverb about journeys and single steps: Start small and work your way forward. Learning does not have a beginning nor and end. It’s a life long pursuit with value in itself. Any doctor will tell you they never finish learning. Neither should we.