The T-Shaped Person

T-Shaped People have deep expertise in a specialist field, coupled with a broad skillset, which allows them to work and collaborate outside their area of expertise.

DevOpsGroup - T-Shaped Person Diagram
DevOpsGroup - T-Shaped Diagram Broad

The term "T-Shaped"

A “T-Shaped Person” is a metaphor used to describe someone who has both breadth of knowledge and skills, as well as deep expertise in a certain field.  The horizontal bar of the T represents breadth of knowledge and skills, whereas the vertical represents depth and expertise.​

The term “T-shaped man” is often credited to McKinsey & Company, who used the term in the 1980s for recruiting and developing consultants and partners. Although, according to Wikipedia, the earliest popular reference to T-Shaped Skills is by David Guest, writing in The Independent in 1991 [1]. ​​

T-Shaped people are highly desirable, especially in cross-functional Agile and DevOps delivery teams.  In particular, the breadth allows T-Shaped People to collaborate effectively with other team members or complete work outside of their field of expertise.  This contrasts with “I-Shaped People” who just have depth of expertise.  “I-Shaped People” tend to lack versatility and struggle to understand how their work impacts others.

[1] “The hunt is on for the Renaissance Man of computing,” in The Independent, September 17, 1991.

DevOpsGroup - T-Shaped Diagram Deep

Being cross-functional

For example, a developer in a cross-functional delivery team is more valuable if he or she can write their own unit tests, and even contribute to testing tickets if work starts to build up in that area.  The same developer is more useful still if they understand the operability requirements of the software they are producing and consider how design principles like the 12-Factor App impact the full life-cycle of the application.​

As people develop professionally, they will often focus on either increasing either the depth or breadth of their T.  Moving into management roles typically means that depth of technical knowledge becomes less useful and increasing the breadth of the T is more valuable.  Sometimes the analogy is extended by saying that managers must also increase the depth of their T-bar.  i.e. they must understand more fields in more depth.  People who remain in technical roles but increase in seniority will often need to focus on adding both depth and breadth.  ​

Working in a cross functional team can sometimes mean that increasing depth of knowledge is more challenging than it would be in a functionally aligned organisation.  This can be alleviated by introducing Communities of Practice, or ‘chapters’ or ‘guilds’, as they are called in the ‘Spotify model’.  For example, if you are the only DBA in a cross-functional team then you probably don’t have others around you that will help advance your specialism. Whereas, in a more traditional functionally aligned organisation you might be part of the ‘DBA team’ and would be presented with multiple learning opportunities from both peers and seniors. Communities of Practice help individuals who share a specialism come together to share learnings, develop good-practice and advance each other’s knowledge.

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