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Polymath: a new IT job description

by Dave West on Jul 19, 2010 |

Is "polymath" a required job skill - a new job title - for IT professionals?

The number of distinct job titles, and associated skill sets, in IT have multiplied over the years. New approaches, like Agile, have added even more (e.g. Coach, Scrum Master, Craftsman). A recent book by Vinnie Marchandani, The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-Technology Innovations, has prompted a flurry of discussion about the polymath as an essential job title / job skill.

Strictly speaking, a polymath is someone who knows everything there is to know, and Leibniz is considered by most to have been the last polymath. Today the term is used more or less synonymously with "renaissance man" - a person who is master of many disciplines, like Leonardo da Vinci was the master of painting, anatomy, sculpture, mechanics, architecture, etc.

According to Marchandani,

[in the past] ... we have relied on Polymaths to innovate and find creative solutions to the problems of the day ... The New Polymath excels in multiple technologies—infotech, cleantech, healthtech, and other tech—and leverages multiple talent pools to create new medicine, new energy, and new algorithms.

Phil Wainewright talks about how the polymath idea applies to his specialty, cloud computing:

Too many people look at cloud merely in terms of the underlying technology of virtualization and IT automation. Although there are some very useful incremental improvements available there ... this very narrow view misses out the bigger picture of global, real-time connectivity that provides the defining context for cloud computing. Disruptive, game-changing business innovation becomes possible when you start to join up the dots and take advantage of the interplay between cloud computing with mobility, social networking and other aspects of the Web. Thus, to really take advantage of cloud for business transformation, you have to be a ‘new polymath.'

Another commentator on cloud computing, Brian Sommer, speaks to why the polymath role is essential in modern business and IT:

Our business world just moves too fast and is too dynamic to have the luxury of non-changing constancy. ... If we pause and fail to expand our thinking, we stagnate and lose relevance. When we’re no longer relevant, we cannot compete as effectively. We cannot charge premium pricing. We lose our advantage in the global market. Business leaders need to be renaissance people as their organizations are the creators of innovation; designers of more productive processes and equipment; and, the people who support the re-vitalization of their businesses.

 

Others, notably advocates of software Craftsmanship have pointed out the need for skills that go beyond the mastery of programming. InfoQ San Francisco 2010 will have a tutorial, Ars Magna, focused on the need for renaissance thinking and skills in IT and how to make use of them.

As interesting and intriguing as the idea of "polymath" may be, questions remain. Is being a polymath fundamentally different than having a strong liberal arts background? How does one become a polymath? Can you learn this skill at university? How does this new skill / job title, relate to existing IT skills and jobs? Does Agile have a greater need for polymaths than traditional software engineering?

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Great to see this article by Mike Gale

I notice that I've seen no comment on this area for a long time.

Well done in filling that gap.

With the web and programming technologies we have available now, there are people who just are like this. Many of them don't draw attention to themselves they just get on with it. They can run a whole business with just one person. (A small group say less than five people can also work well.) We're not talking trivial stuff here. For a small amount you can hire a computing network from Amazon, Azure... and do some serious computing. (Pete Warden aka Pete Search has a nice blog entry about that. Short audio at j.mp/aaaReI)

The education system, social expectations (blinkeredness?) and other people might try to stop it but it still happens.

As to training. I think that's often got little to do with it. Some people just learn and become competent in areas that further the goals of their lives. They can do it faster without formal training and do. The main role of education is to just let people know that they could if they tried.

If you have urges in that direction, now's a good time.

Your choice.

It would be wonderful by James Watson

I would love to see this but I have my doubts. I think it's more common to pigeon-hole. If you are good at coding, you can't be good at architecture and vice-versa. If you understand the business, you can no longer be a technical expert etc. None of this is true, of course, but it's hard to get people to let go of their prejudices.

Agile's success depends on geniuses? by Ronald Miura

Just because 'being a generalist' now means 'knowing not much of everything', now people want a new term for 'knowing a little of everything'?

The word polymath means 'a person of encyclopedic learning'. In other words, a genius. So, by definition, you won't find many of these, if you ever find one. Good luck hiring.

Now, agilists want to put themselves in the same hall of Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton? C'mon...

Re: Agile's success depends on geniuses? by James Watson

The word polymath means 'a person of encyclopedic learning'. In other words, a genius. So, by definition, you won't find many of these, if you ever find one. Good luck hiring.


Encyclopedic knowledge doesn't make you a genius. Genius is defined as "a single strongly marked capacity or aptitude." These are two orthogonal concepts. It's possible to be a genius and be ignorant. It's also possible to know incredible volumes of information and not be able to tie your own shoes.

Re: Agile's success depends on geniuses? by Ronald Miura

Ok, ok, sorry... I'm just tired of buzzwords.

But please don't start to call people 'polymaths' just because they know how to (somehow) code in Java and Ruby, (somehow) tweak CSS, and (somehow) talk to customers.

Skill Set Beyond Technology by Darren Hale

This concept of being good at many things is critical for people these days. People who are competent in multiple areas are tremendously valuable to businesses today. Most people reading this article are probably thinking about people who are good at coding, data design, and network architecture. I think the valuable "renaissance person" in business can understand finance/accounting, HR, specific industry expertise, coding, data design, network design, and team building. People who are competent in these areas are capable of building relationships that foster innovation.

Re: Agile's success depends on geniuses? by James Watson

Well... If there's no term that already fits this meaning there's space for one to be created. What about 'polyglot'? Is that better?

LOL by David Peterson

I think this job title would seriously SCARE "HR" ;)

Also it belies the fundamental truth of the workplace, which is that most people are NOT paid to "think".

Re: Agile's success depends on geniuses? by Manjunath Bhat

I think the industry already has a term for this sort of guy - "Generalizing specialist"

www.agilemodeling.com/essays/generalizingSpecia...

Re: Agile's success depends on geniuses? by Julian Browne

It's a nice article and certainly food for thought, but honestly it would just be nice to meet a few unimaths (or uniglots) to start with. It's depressingly rare, and in my experience getting rarer, to meet a developer who takes a little extra time to learn the craft, understand (and critique sometimes) alternative approaches, languages, patterns, techniques. That goes double for 'architects'.

It's not much to ask that in a field where quite a bit of money gets spent and outcomes can be pretty significant for businesses, and even society, that the people that do it adopt as a first pass some pride and professionalism.
So yes I wholeheatedly agree with the comments above. Broad and sometimes deep experience and knowledge would be great - is critical even (what you call it matters slightly less) - but one has to pass though 'good' to get there. Sadly most of those who need to take that journey aren't checking out infoq on a regular basis.

Polyphoney by Gareth Williams

A person who fraudulently attempts (sometimes successfully) to portray himself as an expert in several fields ;)

Book author POV by vinnie mirchandani

Hi, Dave thanks for the mention and the debate here. The book is actually about much more than IT and more about enterprises than individuals. I have a number of case studies like GE, BASF, BMW which show how companies are learning to create new innovations by blending 3,5, 10 components of IT, biotech, cleantech, healthtech etc. Of course there are IT specific examples like salesforce.com which has blending hosting, apps management and software etc into its cloud solutions or Plantronics which allows for land line, voip and mobile calls with its products. So, it is the next big wave of integration and an AND not OR development mindset. Clearly IT has a major role in all this, but the key is to put together polymath enterprises and development teams not expect each individual to be a polymath themselves. Some obviously are gifted enough across many disciplines - I point to Bill Joy, Nathan Mryrvold and others. The key is not to be a jack of all trades but be really good at 3-4 areas - as good as the specalists in each of those areas.

BTW - in the GE case study there is a profile of an agile project at their healthcare unit your readers may enjoy

Finally, if easy to fix, the last name is spelt with MI - thanks..

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