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As someone who recruits and hires tech talent, you’re likely familiar with the concept of a T-shaped developer. A T-shaped candidate is often the ideal hire (the vertical line of the T represents the depth of expertise in a field while the horizontal line represents the breadth of knowledge). But how easy is it to find these T-shaped developers – and do they even exist? We talked to a few programmers, CEOs, and recruiters alike to hear their thoughts on the topic.

T-Shaped Means Something Different to Everyone

Although I explained the basic concept of the T-shaped developer above, it can mean something different for each person depending on the industry they work in or the skills they are looking for. Ben Beecher, CTO of Lightmatter, defines a T-shaped developer in his company as someone who “has a specialty (backend, frontend, or a particular technology stack) but is comfortable doing a wide range of development work, product management and design thinking." He adds, "A backend developer needs to know how their work interacts with a front-end developer's. Additionally, we look for people who can learn to empathize with designers and end users. Often certain kinds of skills are grouped together and people who are really truly good in a specific niche need to understand how their niche effects things holistically." 

Chris Fei, the Head of Engineering at Indicative, has similar feelings. “Given the complexity of our platform, we actually mostly hire T-shaped developers. We've found that as a highly interactive SaaS product, many people who are well-rounded but not experts in the areas we need just don't have the skills.”

Should a T-Shaped Developer Impact Your Hiring Efforts?

Sometimes recruiters spend too much time looking for that perfect hire that meets each and every criterion in the job listing that they end up never filling the critical role. Is it too much to ask to find these T-shaped developers and not stop until you do?

Michael Cowden, a Manager and Engineer of over 15 years, says, “Yes and no. It does in the sense that I tend to look for folks that have those personality traits (continual learning, tenacity, and strong work-ethic). I would never screen employees based on being t-shaped though.”

The Case Against Hiring T-Shaped Developers

Sten Vesterli, Oracle's ACE Director, argues that you don’t want a team of T-shaped developers for two reasons. “[The first reason is that] they lack creativity. If there is one deep expert on each topic, they have nobody to bounce ideas off and nobody to pull them back on track if they fixate on a bad design. [Another reason is the] communication bottlenecks. The deep expert on each topic has to simplify his communication to his teammates to an extent that he cannot properly articulate his reasoning. “

Instead, Vesterli says, you want a team of V-shaped developers. “They have a peak competency at the tip of the V but have adequate skills in a number of adjacent areas. This ensures that there is one expert and a least one sufficiently knowledgeable team member in every area.”

The Case for Hiring T-Shaped Developers

Justin Cruz, a Senior Software Developer at Passport, says, “T-Shaped developers are the reason that [we are] able to grow at such a rapid pace and take on new challenges. When we are looking for new members for our development teams, we don’t focus on finding someone who is an expert in a particular subject (an iOS or Android developer for example) but rather a full-stack developer that can be successful in contributing to a project end to end. This allows us to have small product teams with high responsibility and the flexibility to remain technologically agnostic. It also tends to naturally let the developer grow in different areas while still maintaining certain expertise. Over time developers will become experts in core pieces of our software platform.”

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