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The tech workforce of yesterday is not the workforce of today – and it certainly won’t be the workforce of tomorrow. 

Technology is evolving rapidly, and companies are struggling to keep up with the pace of digital transformation. Traditional college degrees aren’t evolving rapidly enough to equip entry-level employees with future-proof skills. Software engineers, developers and designers who joined the workforce ten or more years ago already have outdated skill sets. 

Many companies are turning to upskilling and reskilling programs to modernize their workforce. But one type of employee is pivotal to shoring up a company’s culture for the next wave of innovation: the T-shaped employee.

What is a T-Shaped Employee?

T-shaped employees have deep expertise in one area (the vertical part of the “T”) along with a broad set of related skills (the horizontal stroke of the “T”). They can work on a variety of projects, but have unmatched knowledge in one focus area. 

The concept of the T-shaped employee has been around for more than 30 years, but the need for versatile employees that have both depth and breadth of skills has never been sharper – especially in the software engineering field. 

One study by CompTIA found that 84% of companies are now using a T-shaped skills model to guide talent management. As companies work to shed legacy engineering processes and become nimbler and more competitive, T-shaped software developers will be critical. 

Five reasons why t-shaped talent needs to be part of your future of work strategy 

Adaptability and innovation in a rapidly changing environment

In fast-paced sectors like design and technology, constant innovation means the technology required to get work done is always changing. With a diverse skill set, T-shaped tech employees can adapt quickly to new challenges, tools and processes. 

Today, significant skills gaps exist across the talent landscape as older technology grows outdated. According to a McKinsey study, 87% of leaders report having a skills gap in their workforce. With T-shaped employees, organizations have pinch hitters who can shift to fill these gaps as needed. Their ability to solve problems outside of their core specialty area means they can improve overall organizational productivity. 

For example, there may be mission-critical software  development tasks that need to get done, but don’t necessarily require deep expertise to complete. A T-shaped engineer can contribute if a specialist doesn’t have bandwidth or is out of the office, meaning that ultimately, the department manager can do more with the same number of people. 

Effective cross-functional collaboration

Because they have a well-rounded perspective, T-shaped employees can help bridge gaps between technical, creative and business teams. Their multidisciplinary knowledge can help quickly resolve misunderstandings, and foster collaboration between traditionally siloed departments. 

For example, software engineers and UX designers often collaborate closely. A software engineer with entry-level UX design knowledge has deep expertise in coding, but can do some UX design if needed. This employee is more likely to consider UX as they develop a product, and perhaps even bring in a UX design expert earlier in the process, ensuring that the product goes to market faster with fewer rewrites. 

Similarly, a UX designer who understands how to code can give better, more actionable feedback to software engineers. The mutual respect and understanding created by shared skill sets can ultimately result in better products that add value faster.

Innovative problem-solving skills

T-shaped employees may have both technical expertise and a design thinking mindset, which enables them to approach problem solving holistically. From identifying the root cause of an issue to understanding user needs and ideating ways to solve functional problems, T-shaped employees can do it all. 

Because T-shaped software engineers have tried their hands at multiple kinds of work, they are more likely to have greater empathy that can be useful in problem solving and design thinking. They’ve already stood in someone else’s shoes. They are great active listeners, so they are also exceptional at working with others to come up with solutions to tough challenges. 

Customer centricity

T-shaped employees are more likely to understand customer needs and pain points, so they can better develop products and services that cater to a diverse audience. Their empathetic and customer-centric mindset is invaluable, enabling companies to improve user experience, enhance customer satisfaction and gain a competitive advantage. 

In tech roles, a T-shaped employee tends to specialize in a field like software engineering but may have some skills in UX research, UX design and product management. This experience can help them keep the customer at the center of products and features they are developing. 

Continuous learning and growth

T-shaped employees didn’t grow T-shaped by accident. Traditional education pathways don’t produce such a broad skill set. Instead, these employees proactively sought out opportunities to expand their skills and knowledge. They are curious, and likely spend a lot of time asking their colleagues and peers questions and actively absorbing information. They probably also sought out independent learning opportunities, like online courses or coding challenges. They also may spend a lot of time reading, following industry experts or listening to industry-relevant podcasts. 

This natural inclination toward continuous learning serves companies well, as they are likely to remain at the forefront of technical advancements and design trends.

How T-shaped employees offer a competitive advantage for business leaders

Companies that prioritize hiring T-shaped employees, particularly on their software engineering teams, can gain significant competitive advantages, such as:

You likely already have T-shaped employees in your organization, but you might not be realizing their full potential. Consider training programs that upskill employees or provide them with basic skills in areas adjacent to what they already know (e.g. software engineers could learn about UX design, data science and product management). A robust cross-training program ensures you have employees who can shift around as you need them to. You can also provide resources that feed the curiosity of naturally T-shaped employees, like optional courses or certifications. Most tech leaders are sourcing candidates from the same pool. Fostering T-shaped talent can help you differentiate your talent strategy and fill the talent gaps in your organization. As a trusted talent placement partner, General Assembly can help companies identify, onboard and retain these versatile professionals.

Stay ahead of the competition and drive innovation and growth today. Contact us to learn more.