Are you a feature or a product?

The advertisement had clearly stated a long list of requirements as the pre-requisite for applying to that job. But eight of the first ten candidates I interviewed that day were all knowledgeable in just one or two of the many skills we had asked for. The gap between what the company required and what they knew was simply too large. The scene was a hiring spree we were engaged in one of our companies.

Ironically, I had been in similar situations on the other side of the table. My very first interview in the Silicon Valley was for a database job. The dot com boom meant companies had to hire people as fast as they could, be willing to train and hence be flexible about requirements. The interviewer, who would later become my boss, hired me, but did point out the fact that I had to acquire knowledge in a diversified set of tools to complement my knowledge in databases.

Between being a specialist in one subject and an overall generalist in a whole bunch of others, I found myself having to make some serious choices at that moment.

At its core was the question – how did I want to approach my career? Was I being a feature to the company or a product? Do I want to be the specialist who will do that one bit or be the generalist that will run the company?

After all, there are jobs that call for Vice President candidates that require them to do active coding and walk-throughs. Not just in Silicon Valley, but the world over.

The crux of the issue, in my opinion, is the definition of a product and a feature. What does this look like in the real world where products are a big part of our life and identity?

  1. The ability to create a file or folder is a feature on a laptop. But the laptop itself serves a larger purpose by bringing together hundreds of such features together. Steve Jobs was both right and wrong when he called Dropbox a feature and not a product. From his vantage point, Dropbox was a feature; one of the many things that made his products useful. Dropbox on the other hand was a complete product from the perspective of its founders and the millions of users who rely on it for their file sharing and space needs.
  2. A plumber is a complete product in it that he is able to fix any problem with the plumbing of a house or an office. However, when it comes to building a house, plumbing is simply a feature that the house brings together along with electricity, masonry, cabinetry etc.
  3. The microprocessor is a feature of a laptop. One of the many pieces that have to come together to make it possible. However, for Intel, the microprocessor is the product itself.

Having established the definition, what does a feature look like from a personal point of view?

  1. Someone who has super-specialized in one skill, topic or area. I was a feature when I first interviewed for my job as a database specialist. In my perspective I was a product, in it that I could do anything with a database, administer it, be a data architect and the likes. However, from the company’s perspective, I did not have the knowledge that will help integrate the database with the rest of the tools in the software stack.
  2. People who stay put in a job for years on end with no need, inclination or thirst to acquire additional skills or upgrade existing skills.
  3. Generalists who have spread themselves thin across a wide variety of skills with no particular specialization in any one of them. These folks are on the other end of the skill spectrum. They acquire a little bit of knowledge in a number of areas with no depth in any of them. Not just people, even companies get into this quandary all the time.

The overall theme here is not to make a judgement call on classifying people into a feature or a product. Simply the beginning of an intellectual conversation how I / we should structure our career or entrepreneurial pursuits.

It is easy to conclude that everyone should consider themselves a product and present himself as a walking library with a rich collection of features as in possessing in-depth knowledge in a bunch of different areas. Counter to that argument will be –

  1. The one uber programmer who specializes in an ultra small set of programming languages and manages to get $3 million from the likes of Google or Facebook.
  2. The cardiologist who has performed dozens of heart transplant surgeries and is the most sought after cardiac surgeon in the world
  3. The M&A specialist who has the eye to spot the next acquisition for a major corporation

Take the case of Ph.D candidates. Folks who spend years super specializing in one thing. One teeny weeny aspect of a larger puzzle. Studying a molecule, splicing a genome, figuring out mathematical solutions for complex problems. Their focus and single-minded dedication gets rewarded with a job that meets their exact needs. From there they go on to discover or invent life changing medicines or cures without which the rest of us cannot live a normal life.

On the flip side, jobs such as those for uber specialists are few and far between. They have to be hand-picked, look for that one company that matches the exact topic that they specialized in, wait for the university position to open or simply change lines. This might very well be an over generalization, but certainly fits the vast majority.

Same with cardiologists. While transplanting hearts might be their specialized skill, they have to continually work at keeping their knowledge updated in newer surgical methods, instruments, associated disciplines that will help solve complications that arise during surgeries and such.

The answer then, is not a cookie cut this or that. It is a mishmash of both worlds – feature and product. Instead, the answer will lie within the individual. Will depend on what his/her career aspirations are. Depend on the driving purpose of one’s career. And the myriad of factors that drive the decision making process.

I went from being a database specialist to someone who acquired skills in a multitude of different areas and made myself useful to the company that I worked for and in the process secured a future that certainly looked brighter than with a mono-skill resume that I started with.

Features have a place. And so do products. Irrespective of what you choose to be, the key would be to constantly upgrade one’s skill and acquire knowledge in the area and around the peripheries so as to push the knowledge continuum outward and beyond.

Consider this a debate. A spark to light our career fire. At the least, to think about it differently. Would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *