The Dawn of the Tech Generalist Renaissance
Embracing multidisciplinary skills at the frontier of innovation
Hello! I’m Pat and Better by Design is my newsletter sharing pragmatic insights for creative innovation through the lens of design. If you’re new here, join our growing tribe of design innovators!
13 months ago the tech landscape changed with the release of ChatGPT.
An innovation that at first glance seemed to me like an evolutionary Google turned out to be a revolutionary shift in the foundation of modern computing.
In an article I wrote 6 weeks before ChatGPT’s release, I shared a belief about AI that I still hold:
As a product designer, the new possibilities are riveting. But as a creative professional, it’s nerve-racking to think how those possibilities will fundamentally change how I engage with and perform my profession.
Today, I'm surprised by the sheer speed of the rate of change. The possibility of a major shift quickly transformed into the near certainty of an imminent overhaul.
While the increasing complexity of the modern world forced a gradual, necessary specialization from knowledge workers over the last 100 years, I believe generative AI will counterbalance that specialist force, unleashing a generalist renaissance.
A year of experimentation has shown me that tech generalists and creative entrepreneurs are perfectly positioned to leverage this new tech to its fullest potential.
We’ve barely begun our journey into this unknown territory and it’s already enabled new workflows beyond what I could have imagined.
With the internet, a digital designer or programmer already had incredible leverage to create and distribute their ideas far and wide for little cost.
Now, with AI, a single, savvy designer or programmer can create on their own what used to take a team of highly skilled experts. Forget the trope of the 10x engineer; we've made a step change to a whole new order of magnitude.
The good news is that, as a reader of this newsletter, I imagine you’re already ahead of the curve when it comes to the skills that AI will compound into mind-bending creative impact.
The bad news is that this massive opportunity comes with a price: accepting that conventional wisdom has limited use in uncharted territory.
What we thought we knew about work, job titles, business operations, and much more suddenly resembles a curious relic rather than a trusted field guide. Exploring uncharted territory requires making a new map. Your foundational skills will serve you well as a compass, but it’s up to you to break ground and map the terrain.
You don't have to look far outside of the tech establishment to find examples of how new technologies enabled a shift toward the empowered generalist.
First, consider the music producer. A role that once required an expensive studio space and thousands of pounds of physical equipment has been consolidated to fit within a single program on a laptop. While traditional music studios still exist, they are fewer and farther between. Just look at what Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas were able to achieve from the confines of a childhood bedroom! Their music was as creative and resonant as ever, but executed in a new, independent fashion assisted by powerful technology.
Next, consider the filmmaker. In 2023, the quality of video production shared by Creators on YouTube can now rival that of a major production studio from the not-too-distant past. These individuals are true, multimedia generalists: writing scripts, filming, performing, editing, designing graphics, promoting, etc... The tools, the platforms, and the formats all changed but the impact was to empower the individual to achieve more with less than ever before.
Lastly, consider the indie hacker: an entrepreneurial movement of solo technologists testing the limits of their skills to design, develop, and ship software products on their own. All of the digital infrastructure built over previous decades came together to facilitate the automation of many of the most burdensome tasks required to stand up, distribute, and scale new software. This opened the door for those with an entrepreneurial spirit to try addressing niche problems at internet scale, where even a niche can provide massive returns if you keep your overhead low enough.
The compounding improvement of hardware and software combined to enable these tech generalists and creative entrepreneurs even before the introduction of generative AI! Now, with that new variable added to the equation, it's like we've picked up a Starman power-up in a game of Mario Kart; we can move faster than ever while becoming resistant to hazards that used to stop us in our tracks.
The true potential of AI-assisted technology lies in its ability to amplify existing knowledge, rather than replace it. To harness this power effectively, building a broad generalist foundation across disciplines is essential. In areas where your expertise is already strong, AI will provide solid, though not revolutionary, enhancements. However, where your skills are good but not exceptional, AI can significantly elevate your capabilities, bridging gaps in your expertise. Conversely, in domains where your knowledge is minimal, AI's impact will be limited. After all, multiplying zero even by infinity still results in zero. Understanding this principle is crucial for leveraging AI to its fullest potential.
As we enter 2024, the second full year of widespread AI and Better by Design, my goal is to guide this multidisciplinary community in developing our generalist skills. By fully harnessing these abilities, we can maximize the remarkable potential offered by emerging AI technologies and unlock new levels of innovation and impact.
15 years spent across writing, design, software engineering, brand strategy, and philosophy puts me in a unique position to understand and help people from many sides of the modern tech generalist equation. Engineer? Let's extend your range with design techniques. Designer? Let's elevate your work with code foundations. Product manager? Let's grow your impact with behavioral science insights. Building those core muscles adjacent to your specialty will equip you to get the most from AI assistance.
Whether you aspire to excel as an employee or to thrive as an entrepreneur, I believe that reinforcing your generalist skills will give you a substantial strategic edge as we head into the next era of creative technology.
While we watch the sun set on the last generation of tech and entrepreneurship, we can unite as a community to venture out into the new dawn together.
I don't know what lies ahead, but with our skills combined, I'm willing to bet it can be something beautiful.
Happy New Year,