I am T-shaped. Are you too? Learn from my story.
Over the past few years there has been a term that has been tossed around recruiting teams and hiring managers to describe someone who has multiple skills or experience in a wide array of disciplines. These people are described as “T-Shaped” or sometimes referred to as a generalist. A T-shaped person has multiple skill areas (the horizontal part of the “T” letter”) and they are deep in one area (the vertical part of the “T” letter). While I personally understand T-shaped people, I don’t think it is universally understood what makes them unique and how you can’t easily assign them a singular title.
In this post, I am going to explain what being T-shaped means to me, how it has impacted most of my life experiences. When thinking about how to start my T-shape story, I almost started at my first job. I then realized — I‘ve been like this most of my life.
This is my story on how I became T-shaped and later found the Growth discipline.
My Early Childhood
The age when innocent drawing turned holiday card side hustle.
From an early age I was drawn to art, no pun intended. I am not sure if it was because I was left handed or I liked creating, but I found myself drawing. My parents saw me drawing and put me in summer art classes to see if I could develop those skills. I tried multiple mediums, but I enjoyed pencil drawing and especially pen & ink drawing. I would sometimes draw cars and mechanical objects, but I gravitated toward outdoor and nature scenery. After my parents saw some of my drawings, they decided that they could probably make these art classes a positive investment, and asked me if I could draw holiday cards. I used my drawing skills to create holiday cards for my family each year, which were sent to a local printing press and mailed to relatives all over Pennsylvania (original home state) and beyond.
Even though I was often creating something artistic, it was not an easy process for myself. I found myself being a perfectionist very often and it was hard to show people my work before I was happy with it, which was not often. I never really thought I was that good and there were many pieces that were partially done that I threw away before anyone could see them. If I didn’t like how something was turning out, I would stop and start over. My parents didn’t like me throwing out my art, but I knew I could do better if I took what I learned from my past drawing and applied it to the next. I didn’t believe I was born with some special ability, I just got there from trial and error. I would now call this the “Growth Mindset”.
“I didn’t believe I was born with some special ability, I just got there from trial and error. I would now call this the Growth Mindset.”
My Teenage Years
If everyone else is your BFF, who is mine?
A common question kids would ask each other is “Who is your best friend?”. I am not sure if they wanted me to say “you!”, but it happened often from lots of different people over my teenage years. This question always bothered me, because I never saw the people around me as a hierarchy of friends with my BFF at the top. I know that is how many other kids operated, but that always felt too exclusive and limiting in terms of the relationships you have with people around you.
My default answer for the best friend question was always “I have many best friends.” What I meant was that I had a lot of different interests as a teenager from technology, automotive racing, cars, art, sports, and electronics. With each of my interests, I had a different set of friends and a best friend related to that topic. Instead of just one set of friends, I had multiple pyramids of people related to each of my interest areas. I quickly learned that I was pretty unique with my friend setup, because in each of those topical friend groups, the kids didn’t really engage with other groups of kids. This became pretty apparent, for example, when my computer best friend was talking bad about another other kid who happen to be my car stereo best friend. This was often a hard line to walk.
Even though I had many friends and multiple interests, I felt like I was almost a different person with each group of people. Each group had unique norms and inside jokes that outsiders wouldn’t really understand. This was pretty challenging to “fit in” with each group and feel like you are part of the tribe, but that’s who I was, thus I kept doing it over and over. This chameleon approach to friends and personality exposed me to many interests, but it wasn’t without issues. Inside me, I questioned who the original “Chris” was and if I was persuading people and situations. Later in life, I learned that this is valuable when working with people not like yourself when you can’t simply pick your coworkers.
My interests and hobbies were almost so separate from each other that it sometimes felt like I was living multiple lives. One moment I would be drawing, the next I would be writing computer code for a school, and later that day I would be in the garage cutting metal and welding modifications on to my go kart. The only down side to all of this constant flip-flop in interests is that there was only a finite amount of time to invest in each area. I could only spend so much time on my computer program because I was doing mechanical engineering tasks in the garage until late in the evening.
“This chameleon approach to friends and personality exposed me to many interests, but it wasn’t without issues. Inside me, I questioned who the original ‘Chris’ was and if I was persuading people and situations.”
In 9th grade, I discovered one of my high school’s electives, computer aided drafting (CAD) and architectural courses. It was an immediate perfect fit for me and my current passions. It was a blend of my art, computer, and mechanical interests all wrapped into one discipline. Before long, I was the loving drafting and CAD and I would spend my free time assisting my teacher and other students. I took CAD and architecture all the way from 8th to 12th grade and thus my career goals were to become an architect.
My architect college major and career desires came to a grinding halt in 11th grade, but for good reasons. This is when I discovered that I was really good at computer programming. Good enough that within a few weeks I was better than my programming teacher and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I couldn’t even sleep at night, because I was writing code in my head for side projects I was working on. I became very obsessed with it and that led to me founding my high school’s first computer club where we ran coding contests and I realized I was not alone in my new found interest. This changed everything. I decided that I need to go to college for Computer Science and work on this new abstract thing called the Internet and World Wide Web.
The College Years
Cutting my teeth on this new technology called the World Wide Web.
I joined the Computer Science program at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1995. My classes started off pretty normal with a few intro computer classes and an array of required electives. All was going well with my classes until 1997, when I got an Internet account through a company called Erie.net, one of the first Internet Providers in Pennsylvania. Erie.net was a small start up of about 10 people who were providing dial-up Internet access and hosting solutions. They posted a job opportunity on their website for a support representative. I figured since I was a computer science major and I was already familiar with troubleshooting and accessing the Internet, that I should apply. I immediately was called in for an interview and they hired me soon after.
I was in my sophomore year of college while going to school full time and additionally was working 30 hours a week at Erie.net. Time management was very challenging, but I made it work as I was learning new theories at school and applying that knowledge at work and getting paid for it. Even though they hired me as a technical support person in a start up company of 10+ people, the need to step up into other roles and fill gaps was a major opportunity. Within 6 months, I was also one of the Unix system admins. I managed the servers with others, created software to report and optimize the performance of our customer network, designed and built the public company website, and I now managed a team of technical support people. This is a common challenge in the start up world and probably even more in the late 1990's. If I saw a gap and opportunity, I would learn a new skill, and just make it happen. I saw everything I did or could do as a means to of an end of help the business grow. I loved it and it gave me purpose.
“If I saw a gap and opportunity, I would learn a new skill, and just make it happen. I saw everything I did or could do as a means to of an end of help the business grow. I loved it and it gave me purpose.”
My Early Career
Skipping over the entry-level job and landing in the middle of everything.
After I graduated with my Computer Science degree, I decided that the Web and Internet is where I belonged and I immediately jumped into the job market. Since I already had 2.5 years of experience at Erie.net and was still actively working there, I had no gap in employment when I landed my first job post-college at an international telecommunications company. My title was “Webmaster”, which seems now a bit silly, but it was very reflective of what I did. This was a 2,000+ hardware and software company with offices all over the world and I was the only (yes only), Web person in the organization. For the first five years there I did everything myself. I designed and built our company’s website, built an entire company Intranet content management system for collaboration (now called a wiki), and all of the IT and HR self-service web applications. Basically, I turned any manual paper process into a web-based solution with no one else to work with except myself. Since I was the only Web person, I also built and maintained all of the servers that my applications would run on. Looking back now, I have no idea how I made it five years without being completely burned out.
During those first five years at the telecommunications company, I found a new interest that I never considered before. I started to love what the marketing folks were doing and they enjoyed working with me. I eventually became the default go-to technical person the marketing people turned to. One day I asked them frankly why do they always ask me first. They said “Well, you (Chris) understand where we are coming from and know how to take our ideas and turn it into reality. The other technical people in the department either don’t enjoy anything we do or provide us a solution that doesn’t really provide the impact we are looking for.”. Around this time, I started to reflect on my past and how I’ve always had very different types of people and how working cross-functionally at my jobs was just an extension of how I was in my personal life.
Transitioning into Leadership Roles
Removing the bottleneck — me.
During my mid 20’s when others were focused on building deep skills in one area, I was diversifying. I took the leap into management because I realized that there is no way I could scale my impact if I was a one-person-band all the time. There is only a finite amount of hours in a day and a week and splitting my time among different disciplines has an upper limit. My first management role was to build a Web team to take everything I started and scale it to a growing organization. I hired what are now considered to be full-stack developers and project managers to continue to build internal and external web applications. While I never called myself or the people I hired T-shaped, some of the roles were very much interdisciplinary. Even though I was hiring a Web developer, I looked for people who had a diversity of interests, experiences and skills. I always felt that those diverse experiences gives a unique perspective when approaching problems and unknowns. My favorite quote from one of my T-shaped developers I hired was “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. It was so true I carried this idea with me throughout my career.
After the telecommunications company was acquired by another competitor, I left for a new adventure. I was starving (or desiring) like minded people with my eyes set on Silicon Valley. Living in a small college down in the middle of Pennsylvania didn’t provide many professional networking opportunities, but I didn’t give up hope. While waiting for something to open up in California, I decided to join Penn State University. The largest and oldest college at Penn State was the College of Agricultural Sciences. I was tasked with building a Web team again and turn the college into the most Web-centric higher education organization in the United States. At first, this seemed like a pretty straightforward task because I knew the problem space well, but Penn State provided a very unique challenge. If you know anything about Higher Education, the faculty run the show. Because of all of the faculty managing all of their programs themselves and how long the college has been around, there was an incredible amount of cultural and technical debt.
“My favorite quote from one of my T-shaped developers I hired was ‘if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’. It was so true I carried this idea with me throughout my career.”
After running into one human roadblock after another, I almost gave up. Any time I tried to do something new the default response I got from most was “No. This has been the way it’s always been done”. I could barely do what I was hired to do and my team was focused mostly just on a few people who were willing to work with us. All of this changed about one and a half years into the role when I did a presentation for the faculity-wide meeting called by the Dean. I decided to use my experience working with people different than me and met the faculty members in the middle on how they approach their program areas. I decided to use the Scientific Method for the foundation of my presentation. Lesson learned: know what makes your audience tick.
In my presentation to the faculty I talked about a problem we have at the college. I presented a hypothesis of how my team and the products my team provides could solve this problem. I then explained how to test this hypothesis with a few willing departments. I finished the presentation by sharing the results of the experiments and how it directly impacted the volume and quality of students coming through the new student acquisition program. These experiments yielded not only more students, but students that stayed in the programs longer. At the end of the presentation, I had a standing ovation from the entire faculty members and consequently, I had a massive queue of people wanting our services.
I never would have called what I did at Penn State at the time “Growth”, but from reflecting on it now, it surely was. I was focused on increasing the size of our user (student) acquisition funnel, getting the prospective students to activate by filling out a form to be contacted by a representative, and then finally creating better new student onboarding so they discover the value of our programs. This included lots of work in SEO, web standards, and unifying our user experience across multiple organization departments and programs. I even used a spreadsheet with three factors in evaluating the potential organizational impact of a new idea or change to our web experiences and I prioritized the backlog cross-functionally so that all of our stakeholders felt invested in the outcomes, even if they didn’t always directly benefit their area.
“I decided to use my experience working with people different than me and met the faculty members in the middle on how they approach their program areas. I decided to use the Scientific Method for the foundation of my presentation. Lesson learned: know what makes your audience tick.”
Silicon Valley or Bust
A match made in SFO.
In 2011, I found an opportunity in Silicon Valley that looked like it was built for me. Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, was looking for a Web production manager to build out a Web team and work cross-functionally between engineering and the marketing team. So, I left Pennsylvania and moved to Mountain View, California and put my T-shaped cross-functional experience to work for a much bigger scope of work.
Like many previous roles I have been in, my T-shaped skill set immediately came into play. Since I was building a team from scratch, work still had to be done while I was building the team. That meant I was playing the role of a technical project manager, developer, and hiring manager all concurrently. As you can imagine, my PTO piled up quickly with no one else to immediately rely on. I resolved the PTO problem by meeting a number of current and past Mozilla employees who were obsessed with building and racing cars. We did many races together and it helped me find a work/life balance and develop new lifelong friends.
One main question that I had early on in that role is how to effectively make decisions. At previous roles, I instrumented everything I worked on and built, so I could balance user feedback with quantitative insights. At Mozilla, they had very little data or analytics on anything and that was by design given their principles on privacy. After working with Google’s legal and product team for a year, we (Mozilla) found a workable solution to utilize Google Analytics while also maintaining more control over data privacy. Thus, I rolled out GA to nearly all of Mozilla’s 100 websites. This gave me better data to help drive decision making on Web experiences across the organization.
I don’t believe that I would have been able to start building the team, roll out analytics at Mozilla, and work cross-functional with both technical and non-technical stakeholders to create new Web solutions if I was a specialist. My T-shaped skill set gave me the ability to flex in whatever direction, but that doesn’t mean it was completely without effort. It takes real effort and cost to context switch and ideally the cost is outweighed by the impact of effectively bringing cross-functional teams together.
The Growth Discovery
Finding myself and my tribe.
After spending four years building up the Web Productions team into full-stack team of front/back end developers, UX designers, projects managers and analysts, the team was effective and constantly releasing web projects and applications. We had a solid foundation on infrastructure we could replicate and A/B testing to maximize the ROI of our efforts. The team was always incrementally getting better, but I internally started to question my future. I wondered where I would go next and the core question of who I was. I knew that from all of my roles that my impact was felt when working cross-functionally and across disciplines, but I didn’t know what to call that. After talking to HR they said I am a generalist, but try looking up on Indeed or LinkedIn for high-impact generalist opportunities. They don’t exist.
I felt like I have backed myself into a corner my entire career by focusing on a wide array of interests instead of being really deep in just one. As a developer or engineer, I created many applications, but they were always a means to an end to creating a solution. I enjoyed coding, but I enjoyed impact much more than obsessing over code quality or efficiency. I enjoyed project management, but only to try to reduce the investment and time to market with an idea to understand quickly how something worked. I loved data and A/B testing, but mostly because it allowed me to test assumptions and iterate quicker. I enjoyed marketing and working with channels, but again, just as a means to an end to getting content in front of an audience to see how they react to it. Basically, everything I worked on I enjoyed individually, but what I enjoyed much more is seeing the impact of all of those tactics add up to something that matters to the organization.
“It takes real effort and cost to context switch and ideally the cost is outweighed by the impact of effectively bringing cross-functional teams together.”
Seeing and measuring impact is where I have been most of my career. I just considered it my special sauce. The Swiss Army Knife Webmaster. I felt like invented something new after all of those years of prioritizing, trying something, gathering some data, learning and repeating. I knew it was valuable, others didn’t seem to be doing it, but I had no idea what to call it. Calling myself a generalist or data-driven just wasn’t clicking internally for me, nor was it helping me decide where to go next in my career. I had to figure out what to call “it”, because “special sauce” was too vague and not something I would put on my resume.
“I knew that from all of my roles that my impact was felt when working cross-functionally and across disciplines, but I didn’t know what to call that. After talking to HR they said I am a generalist, but try looking up on Indeed or LinkedIn for high-impact generalist opportunities. They don’t exist.”
Then came along a pivotal moment. I came across a blog post by Andrew Chen and he talked about a new lecture series called the “Growth Series” organized by the Silicon Valley Business Review. I read over Andrew’s blog posts and it was almost like I was reading a blueprint of my thought process. I immediately started to read and search for anything Growth related and I came across Sean Ellis and the history of the term “Growth Hacker”. I finally had a name for the thing that I thought I invented way back in Pennsylvania earlier in my career. I am a Growth Hacker! I felt like it was a pivotal self-discovery moment for me. It was there the whole time. I didn’t feel alone anymore and I felt like I could see my future and articulate my purpose.
Discovering Growth reminded me of a quote from Fight Club (one of my favorite movies):
“It was right on everyone’s face. Tyler and I just made it visible. It was in the tip of everyone’s tongue. Tyler and I just gave it a name.”
Growth was the intersection of product, marketing, project management, and analytics with a healthy dose of the scientific method. It was all of the things that I not only enjoyed, but was good at all. There were always going to be people deeper and more talented in any one of those individual disciplines, but where I could have impact is bringing them all together in a cohesive manner to drive the growth of a user base. As I knew before I discovered Growth, there were only a few ways to grow. Either get people to try your product, or get the people who are trying it, to stay longer. As I know now that those are two of the five growth metrics, they were still two of the main levers that I used throughout my entire career regardless if I was trying to grow hardware sales, student enrollment, or software downloads.
Thanks to people like Sean Ellis, Andrew Chen and Brian Balfour, I discovered that my cross-functional and interdisciplinary skills had a name and had value in the world. That name was Growth. After immersing myself in the Growth industry, I met many new friends, spoke at the Growth Hackers conference, and have heard so many origin stories of people in Growth. Each time I hear one of the stories of how they discovered Growth or how their T-shaped skills had a name, I smiled and knew that I found my tribe. Thank you to all of the people who I have collaborated or talked to in Growth and I am excited to see where we all go next.
“Each time I hear one of the stories of how they discovered Growth or how their T-shaped skills had a name, I smiled and knew that I found my tribe.”
Summary of my T-shaped skills
The outcome of all success and failures.
In summary of my origin story to discovering who I was professionally and personally, I wanted to recap my unique set of T-shape skills that I have developed in and outside of my career. Like many of you reading this now, you probably have a unique mix of skills that is your own personal special sauce.
No specific order to the following skills nor are all equal in depth.
- Python / Perl / Shell / Regex / SQL / ColdFusion (eek!)
- Unix servers / Networking&DNS / Web Servers
- SEO / Content marketing
- SEM / Adwords / Display ads
- Acquisition / Attribution
- Channel integration
- Social referrals
- PRD / Strategy
- Impact prioritization
- Google Analytics / Re:dash / Tableau / Spreadsheets
- Forecasting / modeling
- Photoshop / Mock-ups
- Hand Drawing / sketching
- Computer Aid Design / Architecture
- Scrum / lean startup
- Engineering / technical project management / PMI certified
- Cross-functional collaboration/management
- People management
- Experiment Recipes
- Optimizely / Google content experiments
- Internally built tools
- Engineering / fabrication / welding
- Car chassis dynamics / data acquisition
- Driving /racing / coaching (where I spent lots of my PTO)
Now, it’s your turn. What are your colors?
Was my T-shaped origin story seem familiar to you? Are you T-shaped too? How has it impacted your life and career? I would love to hear your story and I look forward to talking to all of my T-shaped (or specialists) friends in the comments below or on Twitter.