A couple weeks ago while up in Boston, I had the chance to talk shop with an engineer about how their staffing had changed after the recession. I know. I know. Maybe not the most thrilling topic initially. But it was actually a extremely worthwhile conversation. I had asked if they were hiring back or even contracting to some engineers that might have been laid off. Fortunately for them they hadn’t had to go through layoffs but it did make him think about their executive’s staffing strategy with respect to engineering. He said that they were pushing for more specialization in terms of design domains and disciplines. I’ll be honest. I was actually a little surprised. The engineers I’ve seen that have survive the recession were ones that were generalists that provided executives flexibility in terms of staffing projects. But then I got to thinking. And then I did a little investigating.

The Hyperspecialization Trend

As it turns out, there’s actually a larger movement afoot here. It seems that hyperspecialization is catching on with executives. Thomas W. Malone, Robert J. Laubacher, and Tammy Johns over at the Harvard Business Review together wrote a recent post titled The Big Idea: The Age of Hyperspecialization. The entire post provides some pretty good perspective. But here’s what I found most applicable to this discussion.

Looking at today’s terrifically complex supply chains, one might think we’ve already reached the extremes of specialization. Boeing’s initiative to build the 787 Dreamliner, for example, was hailed as the epitome of subcontracting—and then proved to have gone a bridge too far when the parts failed to come together as seamlessly as envisioned, and delays ensued. A web page listing just the “major” suppliers of the plane’s components contains 379 links. But an aircraft is fundamentally a physical product. Consider how much more finely work can be diced when it produces intangible, knowledge-based goods and the information involved can be transported anywhere in the world nearly instantaneously and at almost no cost. Just as people in the early days of industrialization saw single jobs (such as a pin maker’s) transformed into many jobs (Adam Smith observed 18 separate steps in a pin factory), we will now see knowledge-worker jobs—salesperson, secretary, engineer—atomize into complex networks of people all over the world performing highly specialized tasks. Even job titles of recent vintage will soon strike us as quaint. “Software developer,” for example, already obscures the reality that often in a software project, different specialists are responsible for design, coding, and testing. And that is the simplest scenario.

Of course, this discretization approach is nothing new to engineering. It’s the standard for solving the big, nasty, hairy problems that engineers run into every day. And I see how this type of approach to staffing and skillsets apply. The proverbial rabbit hole for a specific type of technology is increasingly deep. And that’s because each of these different types of technologies are increasingly complex. You truly need someone who really knows what they are doing to make them work.

So what’s the point here? Well it’s pretty simple. Get specialized. Or more to point. Get hyperspecialized. And actually, there’s some pretty good advice out there. Jeff Glass, the Program Director of the Duke Mechanical Engineering Management program, actually wrote a post not long ago titled Become an Expert that’s relevant here.

One of the concepts we are constantly pushing with MEM students is that you are engineers expanding your education into engineering management. So take advantage of the engineering skills you worked so hard to build. Combine your engineering background with the newly acquired business, management and leadership training to become an expert in a unique combination of skills that can not be duplicated without your unique background. This requires embracing your engineering training while understanding how a particular organization will value that background without pigeon-holing you into a technical niche that you are not passionate about.

I do agree with Jeff’s astute advice. But I also have to object a little bit. It’s not all about specialization. In fact, if all you have are hyperspecialized engineers, then you could find yourself in some serious trouble.

Where Does That Leave System Engineering?

Why? Well because the challenge of getting bleeding edge technologies to work together is just about as hard as developing bleeding edge technologies in the first place. And I think getting a slew of narrow fielded engineers trying to figure out how everything should work together is a recipe for failure.

Ultimately this is where system engineers come into play. These are people who know how to follow processes to get technologies to work together. Things like breaking down and allocating requirements and functions across multi-disciplinary systems. Things like planning interfaces between technologies and systems. Things like validating and verifying that the systems work as a whole. And as much as processes can help, experience can make all the difference.

What’s my take here? Well, if you’ve been thinking about a career in system engineering, don’t let this hyperspecialization trend scare you. In fact as many engineers move away from specialization, there’s going to be a big gap between folks who know how very specific technologies work and how all the technologies work together. In fact, system engineering, even though it could be seen as a generalist type of role, is actually highly specialized. Few others can do what you do.

Conclusions, Questions and the Wasteland Inbetween

To me, it seems like the trend towards hyperspecialization isn’t the only story here. You have to system engineers to make sure everything works together as well. Maybe the real story is that you have to choose your path. In today’s engineering world, you have to go deep into a technology area or focus on system engineering generalization (which could be a specialization?). In between you’ll find a career wasteland.

What are you thoughts? Are you seeing the same sort of trends towards hyperspecialization in your organizations? What sort of emphasis is placed on system engineering? Sound off. I’d like to hear what you have to say on this one.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.