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Polymath: a new IT job description

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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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