I really enjoyed reading Range by David Epstein. Page after page, I had the constant feeling of getting corroborated of many embryonic ideas that I already had in my mind but were still far from being developed.

If we live in a highly specialized world..

It is undeniable that we live in a world that is getting more and more specialized. I always loved and believed the metaphor of standing on the shoulders of giants. However, sometimes I feel like these giants are becoming extremely tall. In so many fields and industries, we got so deep that you need almost an entire lifespan to be an expert. And you can agree with me that software engineering is for sure one of these areas. It is not a surprise that in our culture hyper specialization is seen as positive and something to be incentivized. For example, it is getting popular the culture of the head starts, in which people try to gain advantage by beginning the specialization race earlier and earlier. Many books and coaches promote the ten-thousand-hours rule of expertise, stating that the number of accumulated hours of highly specialized training is the sole factor in skill development, no matter the domain.

So, why can generalists triumph?

On the other hand, the main lesson that you learn from this book is that hyper specialization and deliberate practices do not play the same importance in all areas. In fact there is a fundamental distinction between kind learning environments and wicked learning environments. In order to understand the difference you need to think of the kind environments like the gentle ones that give you the gifts of instant feedback. They show repetitive patterns and are predictable. The best example is golf: you know almost instantly if your shoot was good and provided an advantage. In these kind learning environments deliberate practice is a decisive factor for improvement. Repeat and repeat: you will become better. And, first you can start and earlier you specialize and farther you will go. On the opposite corner, you have the wicked learning environments. Here, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete. The feedback that you get is traitor, it comes late and very often misleads you. For example poker, it’s more dynamic, you need to adjust to the opponents every moment, you never know what can happen next. In wicked learning environments, the head start and deliberate practices are not enough anymore. In these environments people with range behave better. If you get late to the playground of a wicked learning environment because you were previously busy learning from other environments, then you have a competitive advantage against earlier specialists. And guess what? Most real world environments share more with the wicked ones than to the kind ones. Let’s think about economic sciences, medicine, geopolitics, environment and so on.. And what about software engineering? Well, agile coaches repeat infinite times that our industry deals with VUCA environments that are defined by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. All words that fit very well the concept of a wicked learning environment.

What is the lesson learnt for Software Engineering?

For these reasons, I recommend the reading of this book to the people working in software. In fact, I feel that our industry suffers from a lack of diversity. I saw many times software engineers scrutinizing resumes or interviewing candidates. And coming from other areas of expertise or from other university curricula is often perceived as something negative. I spoke with SW developers and architects in the healthcare sector that were proud saying that they have worked for 20 years in the same sector. Undoubtedly, they know very well the details of our market. But, maybe they are missing breath that came from other areas. They are missing direct experience on how other industries are solving similar problems. At the very end, as always, the truth is in the middle. In our teams and companies, we need to have the right mixture. We need both the narrow-view hedgehogs, who know one big thing, and the integrator foxes, who know many little things. Hedgehog experts can go deep, but narrow. And sometimes being too specialized can be problematic. You start to see the entire world with the same glasses. The olds say that when you have a hammer in your hand, then you see nails everywhere. On the other hand, generalists can find bridges between areas, where specialists get stuck. We need more integrator foxes, people not so deep in their specialization. People with range that can connect the dots. These are typically the people with breath that are able to ask the right question to the specialised hedgehog and then draw the bigger picture.

The power of stories

Range delights the reader with a lot of examples where having broad experience brought outstanding results. And these huge collections of anecdotes is probably also the most interesting part. You could appreciate how the immense amount of different instruments sounded by le figlie del core turned them into rockstars at the time of Vivaldi. Or as the critical thinking of Kepler and his use of analogies helped him to answer questions that could not be answered with the experimental setup available at his time. You’ll understand which paths can share people from so different worlds like the tennis player Roger Federer, Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Frances Hesselbein, Michelangelo or Van Gogh. On the other hand, if these stories are very interesting, it is also true that sometimes they sound more anecdotic than scientific proof. For example, I just read some weeks ago the book Why we sleep from Matthew Walker and I was amazed reading the vast sounding scientifics arguments and evidence collected, something that I missed here in Range.

What can we do better?

This book confirmed once again my opinion that our school and university is somehow broken. There is too much focus on teaching details and specializing students. Instead, more of the energy should be spent on teaching how to learn. For example, we should teach how we can take advantage of reasoning by analogies, how to develop critical thinking, playing with “Fermi problems”, trigger science curiosity, develop strategic thinking, teach how to test-and-learn models for exploring options. For example, It’s true that vocational schools and specialized tracks like boot camps provide a shortcut to earn money quicker. But people from these paths are getting only short term benefits. In fact, if we consider the entire lifetime, it’s proven that people coming from broader studies have a better money return. Moreover, we need to take into account another important aspect, premature optimization: that it is specializing in a field before we know ourselves well-enough. In fact, we sometimes choose our career too early. And here, we need to pay attention and avoid the sunk cost fallacy. In fact, we need to be cautious of having too much grint: persistence is something positive, it helps you to try and try hard and harder to reach your goals. But it can also be dangerous, because perhaps you have chosen something that was not your best fit. And sometimes it can be more beneficial to drop what you are doing and maybe take lateral paths that bring you to unexpected but better places.

To summarize, what I learned: Don’t be scared to show in your resume your range of experience. Jumping from one industry to another is not something to be ashamed of, but something that you could be proud of. The advice is to explain your path, how and why you moved along your experience to make visible your strengths.