Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hedgehog or the Fox ?

If you are a hedgehog, you know one thing really well. If you are a fox, you know many little things.

This question has many many applications in the area of career management, after you stabilize career, do you take steps to specialize in something or do you pick up more skills as a generalist ?

I asked this question on FB and  observed that most tech professionals would rather be a hedgehogs. This makes sense since hedgehogs who specialize in one platform can make a lot of money out of it. The 1990s and 2000s IT landscape belonged to SAP consultants who were specialists. They were known to be able to bill for time and materials and led lives with a high standard of living. Data Science is the current flavor of the month.

Most guys who are into investments prefer to be foxes. Assessing the viability of an investment goes way beyond applying financial models. Many investments come with political risks and a person who has many models and perspectives tend to do better in managing money than someone armed with a single equation.

The dichotomy between being a fox or a hedgehog is represented by two conflicting models.

In Six Sigma, the biggest rewards goes to processes with a smallest amount of variation. The biggest rewards got to people produce something with the least amount of defects.This model is opposed by Fisher's theorem, where it was theorized that higher variance leads to faster adaptation ( As in evolution ). If you adopt this theorem then you will introduce as much variance as possible so that adaptation to the environment can be done in the shortest time possible. 

I think the insight on one's choice of models has implications on career management. 

If the environment is static and unchanging, then Six Sigma would be a useful model. If you work in an industry which is static where folks are stubborn to change, it makes sense to specialize and find a niche which you know would be rewarded in your environment. In the public sector, I noticed that the folks who get promoted are mostly predictable hedgehogs. You can also have lifelong employment if you are a master of an arcane process like procurement. 

If the environment is dynamic and fast-changing like Tech, it may be wiser to be a fox and introduce variation in your skills. In the past, software engineers face a lot of paradigm shifts. There's currently one going on involving functional programming. The Microsoft lay-offs has also made people question the value of putting your entire career into one .NET platform. 

So in summary, I think there is an objective answer to this question of whether to be a hedgehog or a fox. 

It depends on the degree by which how dynamic your work environment is. 

People in tech may have chosen wrongly when they become hedgehogs, they are better off being foxes. Combining some technical skills with domain knowledge, but maintaining writing skills and maintaining curiosity in strange new platforms is vital to maintaining their currency in a ridiculous crazy industry. 

Just remember, we aare now in a world where Microsoft is laying off thousands of people - no one is safe.


  1. Hedgefox is the way to go. Know tech and functional stuff. In sap, they are called technofunctional folks. ;)

  2. Singaporean is like this.

    Offer them two choices and they want both !

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