What Do T-Types Have to Do with Programmers’ Skill Sets

parts of the letters I, T and m

The ‘stem’ is the technical term for the column-like part of a letter. What does this have to do with programmers’ skill sets, and what specifically does it have to do with that joker in the next cubicle?

You know who I’m talking about. He got hired a couple of years ago by hyping his blockchain knowledge. Do you have a blockchain initiative underway yet? Of course not. Now he talks a lot about machine learning. Through all of this, he remains unable to execute on anything. He also has a maddening way of disappearing whenever you need him. (Side note: if he’s supposed to be writing reports, now is a good time to check out our ad hoc reporting for your users.)

So what does this have to do with the letters T, I and lowercase m?

About 25 years ago, my manager at the time told me “in the future programming is going to be more about connecting things than coding them.” That has turned out to be pretty accurate. What businesses demand of programmers has changed. In the past, developers demonstrated their value to their organization by cultivating a deep level of knowledge in one technical domain. An employee with this skill set is sometimes called an “I-type”, where the stem of the letter “I” serves as an analogy for deep knowledge in one area. Since most organizations had a specific technical ecosystem, for example, IBM OS 370, this was all they needed to know (but they had to know it really well.)

Today organizations value another type of employee, the “T-type,” who has deep knowledge in one domain, but broad knowledge (indicated by the bar on the letter T) across related areas. The term T-type was coined by writer David Guest in an article in the Independent in 1991. When you hear the term “full stack developer” this is actually a T-shaped role, although Guest used the term “renaissance man” in his article. Gartner also described this kind of employee, calling them “Versatilists” – meaning an employee who was flexible enough to work across different domains of technological (and other) knowledge.

A lot has changed since 1991. Requirements for employee skills have evolved beyond connecting one application to another. Developers face a vast range of technologies and solutions, beyond what even a T-type can fathom.

So do we need another type besides I and T? As technology rapidly evolves, nobody has time to become an expert at everything. T-type developers are hugely valuable, but they can’t be everywhere.

In a post on the Microsoft Developer blog, JD Meier proposed a new E-type role, the employee who can execute. This is a great point, but because as a characteristic “ability to execute” is not mutually exclusive with I’s or T’s, I don’t believe it exactly fits the bill.

Perhaps what we need is a lowercase “m” personality. Someone who is willing to do a pretty shoddy job of getting from point A to B to C, at which time the T-type can step in to do the heavy lifting. Why “m”? Well, it keeps with the letter pattern, only it’s got multiple, shorter stems and is wider than the other characters. And lowercase, because here we are describing someone without a deep level of knowledge.

Similar to an “early adopter,” an m-type is happy to try a new product, doesn’t look for the approval of their choices and doesn’t mind a bumpy learning curve. This person may be the first to spy a relevant new technology or product on the horizon, which T-types, who are heavily invested in their niche, will likely ignore.

Ironically, this kind of employee is everyone’s least favorite, which brings us back to that joker in the next cubicle. She knows just enough about an emerging trend to spout its jargon to you as you’re getting your coffee (and of course, to add it to her LinkedIn profile.) But she is not going to help you get your next set of requirements live.

Am I suggesting you look to hire these types of employees? Absolutely not. But many organizations are large enough to have already collected a few m-types. They tend to be shuffled around from manager to manager. So is it possible that they may offer some actual value with insight into emerging trends, industry or competitors?

Absent a fast track to firing m-types, should we be listening to, instead of griping about, them?

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