Ali Jafarian

What’s the difference between being good at something vs. being great? Quantity over quality – should I be a jack of all trades or master my skill? Here’s some general advice I’ve learned over the years.

As web designers and developers, we’re often faced with the frequent decision of what to learn (or do) next. As it relates to your career you have 2 main career paths:

1) Become a Ninja – you see the value in learning more and more, which expands your vocabulary/proficiency and allows you to add to your resume.
2) Become a Master – you see the value in becoming better at your current skill-set and progressing up the ladder – senior developer, architect, director, vp, etc.

So which route is better? For most situations, becoming a master. Here’s why:

The Ninja

Choosing to become a ninja is great, and fun, and challenging. It offers you the opportunity to explore the vast world of web development and dabble into a little bit of everything. You’ll be able to hold the title of “Full-stack Developer.” You’ll get tasked with a variety of responsibilities, from HTML to data modeling. You’ll make decent money if you truly can live up to your expectations. You’ll be included in a lot of meetings and conversations, and you may even become the go-to guy or gal for what plugin or framework to use for your specific stack. Sounds great, right? Yes… but… in terms of your value to a company you’re the most marketable to one specific phase of a business – start-up. Let me elaborate.

Start-ups are typically fast paced environments where everybody pitches in to get to the finish line. Everyone leverages their entire skill-set in chaotic fashion to help and help until every task is completed. So having full-stack ninja developers is ideal. They can do many things well instead of a few things very well. However, at a certain point a start-up “makes it” and starts to level out. Quality starts to trump quantity and having people with expertise becomes important to continue growing products and teams. So now the full-stack ninjas are no longer needed. And this is the case with over 90% of tech businesses on the market today (start-ups are the minority).

The Master

Masters, on the other hand, are marketable and needed at start-ups AND the other 90% of businesses on the market. They are the professionals who solve the hardest problems and help organizations grow. Masters take ownership in a specific skill-set and learn the intricacies that separate them from all the other devs and designers claiming that skill-set. They also become fast while maintaining quality, which is key in our field.

In terms of career growth, masters will accelerate faster than ninjas. This equates to higher salaries and more responsibility. It also includes being a part of fewer, more important meetings. And when decision making time comes around their vote will have considerable weight.

My Personal Experience

If you’ve read this far it would be easy to assume that I favor the master route. This assumption is true because I’ve been down both paths.

My first full-time job a while back was for a medical institute where I held the title of “Manager of Technology and New Media.” When I was given this title I thought, “Awesome! I’m gonna get to do so many things!” This ended up being true – the so many things part – and it ended up being a disaster. Instead of working on web development I spent half my time helping staff with tech issues. Then when I finally had time to work on stuff I liked it took me forever because I wasn’t focused or proficient enough to do them effectively. This was my first ninja role.

Having that experience made me realize that I had to to become better at a specific skill-set to avoid future roles like that. So I submerged myself in front-end development and concentrated on HMTL, CSS, and JavaScript. I took roles over the next few years that allowed me to refine these skills and not dabble into other aspects of web development. Did I do other things? Sure, but the majority of my time was spent on those 3 things. This allowed me to master them and become faster, and more proficient, than most of my peers. And now I’m marketable as a senior level UI/UX engineer to almost any company with front-end needs. Not to mention it pays better than being the “Manager of Technology and New Media” :)

Conclusion

There’s no right or wrong answer here. Many ninjas are very happy in their careers, and can find opportunities for growth in certain situations. But at the end of the day most of us will go further, faster, by mastering a skill. I hope this was helpful in your career decision making!


  • James Summers

    What a great article and so true in every job not just tech jobs. I am retired now but during my working career no matter what rung of the ladder I was on I was always the Ninja. While being good as a Ninja I was never completely happy. I came for the code but stayed for the articles. Thanks.

    • Hey James,

      Thank you for the kind words. Glad the article had some resonance with you :)

      Good luck with your coding!

  • AnotherAlchemist

    I once read where Bruce Lee was quoted saying he fears the man that practised 1 kick a thousand times. At this stage of my life I have dedicated myself to the mastery of sales and business strategy with the endgame being wealth and business/people mastery. There is much value to being a master than a ninja although for the former much labour and focus is needed to accomplish it; and risk also, because that’s the thing about mastery, who says you will ever nail that level but when you do, you enter another plain of existence. On that note, a very inspiring article, makes me eager for another day to achieve mastery.