People, shapes and careers

Introduction

We organize teams because we need a variety of skills to accomplish hard tasks. This is especially true in data science and software engineering. The fields are so broad that even an expert will often find themselves feeling like a novice. When composing teams, team builders--hiring managers, recruiters, HR departments and executives--will look for people of different shapes: especially "T-shaped", "Pi-Shaped".

T-shaped people

The idea that people come in different shapes refers to the depth of their skills. For example, a T-shaped person has a broad skill base--the top cross of the T--and a single deep focus area--the vertical line in the T. This person, the T-shaped person, is required on every team. T-shaped people can be expected to deliver strongly, perhaps even leading in one key area, while also being capable of supporting in others.

If you imagine that your team needs four different skill sets--data collection, methods and analysis, data visualization, and DevOps--then with four T-shaped people you can accomplish your task, assuming you find one person who has depth in each area. This team is also able to back one another up. For example, if your data visualization person is sick, your DevOps person may be able to step in. They might not have the same depth, but because they are T-shaped, they can get the job done for a short period of time.

Becoming a T-shaped person takes up the first part of a career in any field. During this time, you develop a focus area and a broad base of skills. Once people become T-shaped, they will begin to be given leadership opportunities. These opportunities should be focued around their area of depth. For example, having a person whose depth is in data analysis lead a data analysis project or sprint.

Pi-shaped people

Beyond T-shaped people, some technical experts will become Pi-shaped people: Π. People who look like Π have two deep areas of technical expertise that allow them to make unique contributions. An example of this may be someone with depth in data engineering and DevOps who is at the leading edge of the emerging DataOps movement.

Π-shaped people are hard to find and team builders will not look for these folks for most positions. Π-shaped people will be called on to be more than individual contributors. Often, they will help set the technical agenda for their team, group, or organization.

If you're already a T-shaped person, you may aspire to becoming a Π-shaped person.

Shaping your development

How can you use these ideas about shapes to help guide your own career development? Well first, scope out the areas of skill in your field. If your field is data science, lots of people have tried to do this already. You may look to their work. For example:

  • Like this
  • Or this
  • Or this
  • Or this
  • Start by building the horizontal bar of your T. This will give you an opportunity to explore lots of different parts of your field and find what aspects of the field you like best. Then, dive deep. Work to build expertise in a specific area of your field. Lastly, if you can develop expertise, work on becoming Π-shaped.

    Conclusion

    When team-builders are designing teams, they look at what that team needs to be able to accomplish and they set out to assemble people that have the skills to accomplish those tasks. They will typically look for T-shaped people. T-shaped people can fill lots of roles OK, and can excel or lead in one area. If you're early in your career as a data scientist or developer, aiming to become T-shaped is a good first goal. Once you've met that goal, you may want to attempt to become Π-shaped. Π-shaped people have two areas of expertise and will often be called upon by their organizations for technical leadership.

    Resource

    You can use an Excel workbook to map out your skills. Compre your current shape against the shape of the job you want to identify areas you need to improve.


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